I experienced a turning point in my life that I first believed to be a result of vulnerability, empathy, and compassion, but I later realized it was a result of a deeper, foundational attribute. The bad news is that this foundational attribute is being forgotten in our modern world. But the good news is that there are simple ways to restore the foundation to improve mental fitness.
Part 1: A Turning Point
I worked in a police division where disturbing investigations occurred daily. At that time, attributes like vulnerability, empathy, and compassion were vilified; they were tools predators used to gain the trust of victims. Back then, we considered good cops to be highly desensitized and able to suppress emotion.
An example I recall is a time when I was leaving a gruesome crime scene with a rookie. We returned to our police car where I started eating a hamburger. The rookie commented that he was deeply disturbed that I not only had an appetite after seeing what we just saw, but that I was eating after handling evidence that would upset any reasonable, sane person. I minimized his comments as weakness and told him to get through his first year at the division and then see if he felt the same way.
This may seem like a common story for first responders, but it accurately represents how I valued desensitization and emotional suppression at the time. That belief changed one night when my wife woke me up as she was defending herself from me “attacking” her as I was having a nightmare. The only thing that shocked me more than my actions was the fact she told me that I had been doing that to her for years.
She then told me the nightmares were the least of her concerns, as excessive drinking, self-medication, self-destructive behaviors, and extreme risk-taking made her feel she would lose me at any moment. She tried many times to have this discussion with me, but I refused, as I felt it would lead to disturbing conversations about work that I wanted to protect her from.
This was a turning point that changed my beliefs on desensitization, vulnerability, empathy, and compassion. I immediately began sharing work stories and struggles, which changed our lives. The impact of confronting and sharing my inner demons were dramatic:
- The nightmares stopped within days.
- My health and sleeping habits noticeably improved within two months.
- Our marriage excelled beyond what I thought possible.
- We both learned to use desensitization, vulnerability, empathy, and compassion in ways that improve outcomes while preventing unethical people from exploiting these admirable attributes.
Part 2: The Forgotten Foundation
This turning point might appear to be about the power of vulnerability, empathy, and compassion but it isn’t. It is about why it was so easy for me to begin speaking about private struggles. It took little courage to open up, yet as I work with organizations to help normalize transformative conversations, it takes exponentially more effort to create the psychological safety for people to build enough courage to join the conversations.
The foundational attribute I believe we are forgetting when discussing tactics is proximity, which results in the feelings of safety and belonging needed for transformative conversations to occur with little to no effort. More specifically, this is positive proximity as opposed to toxic proximity.
Proximity helps people with emotion regulation while diminishing negative affects. Additionally, people regulate each other’s emotions through empathic, supportive, and prosocial behaviors as more time is spent together (Dixon-Gordon et al., 2015; Niven, 2017; Zaki and Williams, 2013).
When you consider the fact that modern life is moving away from real life interactions to digital transactions and work in real life is moving to work from home, you may realize that without proximity, improving mental fitness may become more challenging. It is a fear that leaders in the mental health movement may become exhausted before they achieve a critical mass impact if digital transactions continue replacing human interaction.
Part 3: Solution to Consider
While proximity and work in real life amplify efforts to improve mental fitness (and defuse negative affect and threatening activities), 64% of workers say they would leave their jobs if forced to work in real life.
This creates a massive gap between what’s needed to build a foundation for mental fitness in work-life vs. what most workers want.
At Plexxis, we use over two dozen tactics to close this proximity gap. One tactic is impact bracketing, which is loosely based on the psychological concept of task bracketing. Impact bracketing allows us to achieve excellence from anywhere.
The first step in our impact bracketing process is identifying every known task across all departments, which are needed for business continuity. Each task is subsequently placed in one of two categories (see Exhibit 1):
1) In real life task list:
- Tasks that involve rapid change.
- Long impact brackets mean that the task is directly associated to other tasks. So if a mistake is made, other teammates will be negatively impacted.
- The highest levels of team cohesion are needed to prevent avoidable stress, negative affect, and miscommunication.
2) Excellence from anywhere task list:
- Static predictable tasks.
- Short impact brackets mean that a task is not directly associated to other tasks. So if a mistake is made, it can be corrected without negatively impacting teammates.
An example of an excellence from anywhere task is website design and search engine optimization (SEO), as they are not directly associated to in real life tasks. After categorizing tasks, external subcontractors are hired to handle excellence from anywhere tasks in order to lighten the demand on employees so they can focus more on in real life tasks. This also helps keep the team at a size that is easier to build team cohesion and a positive proximity environment.
All of the tactics, including impact bracketing, are designed to continuously improve 3P-M: performance, positivity, and physical and mental fitness (Exhibit 2).
For many, work life accounts for 30% of life, making it one of the largest opportunities to build invaluable lifetime bonds. As automation increases, we should be cognizant of what human interactions are being replaced with digital transactions so we can avoid the point of failure where we abandon the connections that make us most human.
In the end, as modern human resources and mental health movements try to normalize psychological safety, vulnerability, empathy, compassion, etc., it may serve us well to remember that positive proximity results in these attributes. Increasing distance between us through remote work and digitized transactions may be harming efforts to normalize these attributes. Investing effort into tactics that increase positive proximity may restore the foundation that helps us improve mental fitness.
The author would like to thank Cal Beyer of Holmes Murphy & Associates for serving as peer editor for this article and the ongoing series of “lived experience” stories. The author and Cal regularly collaborate through the virtual roundtables sponsored and hosted by the Construction Progress Coalition (www.constructionprogress.org).