This past year I’ve watched two very close friends (and colleagues) suffer from mental health problems. I don’t think it’s coincidence that they both worked in the same industry, for the same company, but it’s impossible to make any assumptions.
The best part of any week was always setting down my tools mid-afternoon, and walking through the city streets with one of these friends. Our goal was always the same. Hot chocolate. We have abnormally high standards when it comes to drinking chocolate. A trip to the nearest Starbucks would never suffice. This meant an excursion to a place of real quality. We needed chocolate experts.
To me, this time out was vital. We sometimes talked of work, but mostly we spoke of life. The joys. The struggles. We opened up to one another.
There was always a pinch of guilt at stepping away from the desk, to wander, and to indulge the taste buds, on company time. Feeling other’s gaze as we picked up our jackets and closed the door behind us. This wasn’t our lunch break. This time wasn’t billable. It was on the clock. Part of the 9–5.
That’s why I felt so relieved when my manager’s feedback came:
“It’s great that you take the time to think not just about the work, but about the people. We need to do more of that.”
And they were right.
We do need to take a step back and consider how our work environment is affecting us. When I started spending more time working from home (and cafes…and cabins…) I noticed how much the office had an impact on my work. At home, I was free from distraction, observation and the feeling of others expectations. I swapped city commutes for morning beach walks. I swapped dark corners for bright windows. I filled my view with flowers, and I never forgot my lunch because I could cook fresh food in my kitchen every day. When I was agitated, I stretched. When I needed to think, I went outside into the sunshine. I felt invigorated, mind, body and soul.
Most importantly though, I never felt judged in any of the many subtle ways that office environments unconsciously impress upon us.
That’s why hot chocolate was such an escape. But it went beyond this, too.
When we present design work, we map it out as this structured, linear process. Just follow the step to success and abracadabra, one collection of stunning ideas ready to go. That’s all it takes.
Sometimes, that is how it works. But oftentimes it’s not. Design doesn’t just happen at a desk. We all know the cliche that the best ideas come to us in the shower. The mind needs time to relax, to digest, to process, to loosely wander.
Understanding this means making sure to stop and pause every once in a while. To take a breath, or a stroll. To sit down with our thoughts or with a friend. To let things stew, and to talk things through. At a cafe, by the beach or in the mountains.
Most importantly, it’s taking the time to acknowledge that other people need this too. Sometimes even more than you could ever know. Because, let’s be honest, most of us aren’t opening up about our mental health around the coffee machine, and it’s destroying us.
So, I say, do bring the chocolate. Do your best work, and more. Then help other people do the same. You’ll figure out the best way to make that happen. For me, it’s taking a walk outside, to find a fresh bowl of rich, dark, viscous liquid to warm the hands and my soul. Because everybody needs an escape. Some perspective. Some support.
Some hot chocolate.