“I am a rock, I am an island.” – Simon & Garfunkel
In this post, I thought I’d take the time to address something I believe is extremely important and which will potentially affect everyone at some point in their life and career, regardless of their experience or ability as a business analyst, or any chosen vocation in life. I believe that The Way of the BA can be found in maintaining balance across the personal and professional aspects of one’s life – a career is to be enjoyed, not endured.
I wish I could say that life as a business analyst is a consistently joyful experience, where you wake up everyday filled with excitement in anticipation at what the day ahead holds for you. Unfortunately, there are times where your project, programme or life in general will be a good deal less than brilliant. You may have to face the pressure of challenging or overly ambitious timescales to deliver against, or a workload which seems to be increasing at an exponential rate that even the most organised and efficient BA would collapse under. It might be conflict with your stakeholders, or worse, your fellow project / programme teammates which adversely impacts you (we’ll deal with that one in another post). Worst of all, you may find yourself dealing with circumstances in your personal or private life which – unless you happen to be a high-functioning sociopath – you are unable to fully or even partially compartmentalise from your day-to-day responsibilities in the office, which sees your ability to perform adversely impacted to varying degrees as a result.
I’ve had a few of these seasons over the course of my career, and they absolutely are the worst experiences to go through. The significant ones that stand out for me both were driven by key episodes affecting my personal life – the first of which was a considerably adverse event which saw me spin off the rails in a major way, and impact my mental health to a degree that I could not have anticipated, and therefore was completely unprepared to deal with.
Recently, I’ve had to face a couple of life altering events – the birth of my first child and the death of my grandfather less than a month apart – while starting out on a new contract. Grief and sleep deprivation are enough to shake people’s resolve on their own, without the added pressure of getting up to speed on a new project.
There are fundamental differences between how these two sets of events transpired and were dealt with that I wanted to draw attention to, and they can be summed up in the way that I was supported professionally and personally throughout.
In the first instance, I felt very much alone with little immediate emotional support that I could draw upon. I had a couple of close friends who I could lean on and the love of my parents, grandparents and other immediate family members. However, as supportive as they were, they couldn’t help me cope with working in a pressured environment; from dealing with what seemed like an unending wave of deadlines and target dates, to the basic concept of just being able to get out of bed and trying to function normally.
If you’ve ever been in a situation where climbing Everest would seem like an easier endeavour than facing the day ahead, you will know exactly what I’m describing, and you should give yourself every credit for making it through to where you are right now.
With the benefit of hindsight, I can now see that I needed support from within the working environment, and from the team that I was on assignment with. However, the sheer volume of work and the pressure that came with my perceived need to be seen to be adding value for the client meant that I was afraid and ashamed to seek out help – why was this the case???
At the time, I would beat myself up repeatedly over my inability to call out to someone that I felt like I was drowning, and was in desperate need of support. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel able to ask my colleagues or line management for help – which was something that I only truly understood once I began the process to recover, and was a hard, but vitally important lesson for me to learn. Knowing how, when and where to ask for help is one of the most important skills any business analyst can and should learn, and if you don’t take ownership of your own mental health in the workplace, you may find that you don’t get access to the help that you need.
The second instance, I managed to deal with much more effectively, due in no small part to having a very supportive BA function and a practice lead who was understanding, compassionate and extremely proactive in making sure that the BAs under her care were well looked after. Additionally, I had a project manager and a project team who were also very understanding, and all pulled together in picking up my workload and carrying me at a time when I was clearly suffering. It is vitally important to shout up to someone in your work environment when you know that you cannot perform to the optimum level you are capable of.
You cannot be the best version of yourself, if you are not physically, mentally and emotionally in balance.
This lack of balance will rob you of your peace and happiness, and ultimately your physical and mental health, as you wrestle with the knowledge that things are not going well, in addition to the business missing out on getting the best version of you. Having someone who you can turn to that can give you the room to talk, to process, or heal is invaluable when you are experiencing difficult times – be it a colleague, a line manager or a trusted friend or family member.
You may – as I was – be very fortunate to have a loving and supportive family unit at home who are willing and able to help you through these tough times, but if you’re on your own, it can be a devastating experience for you. In contrast to the Simon & Garfunkel song quoted at the beginning of this post, no person is an island, and we all need someone – no matter how much we may try to convince ourselves otherwise.
So what to do?
While there are no hard and fast rules for dealing with difficult times, some of the following may help.
Take a moment to take stock of how you’re feeling in the moment; sometimes just being able to have the time to breathe and clear your head can feel like an oasis in the desert.
Write down your situation in a journal; it can help you to process what’s happening around you and you may be able to see a way through, depending on what your circumstances are.
Speak to someone; you might be amazed at how much getting stuff off your chest helps. If you are struggling and your circumstances are impacting your ability to work, speak to a line manager or practice lead, who should be able to help you manage your workload and delegate your duties when you aren’t able to cope.
You may need to speak to your company’s HR or Occupational Health function who can give you help where you need it. You may need to take some time off to sort things out, and should think about taking some annual leave if you can. Work will still be there when you come back.
If you’re a contractor, you have the ability to take a break at your discretion and I’d strongly suggest that you coordinate with your client to make this happen.
Remember that money is no replacement for your health and wellbeing.
If things are really tough for you, speak to your doctor or a counsellor who can start to give you the help that you need. There’s no shame in talking about your mental health, and the sooner the stigmas around mental health are dismantled, the better it will be for everyone. If you really feel like things are just too much for you to cope with, please take a moment to breathe and think about giving one of the helpful numbers below a call:
Mind (mind.org.uk) – 0300 304 7000
Samaritans (Samaritans.org) – 116 123
Most importantly, make sure that you’re not going through whatever you might be facing alone – your friends, family, colleagues and mentors should all be willing to help you if you’re having a tough time. Remember there’s no shame in not feeling okay. And if you’re really stuck, get in touch with me (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I’ll always try to listen to you and support you where I can.
Take care of yourselves, people.