Actuaries on mental health: Personal, practical and real

Somewhat akin to International Women’s Day, I have mixed feelings about R U OK Day.

On the one hand, I’m glad we are raising awareness about important issues. On the other hand, I wonder if it’s just another excuse for cupcakes and rhetoric.

My own experience with mental illness began towards the end of my actuarial professional exams. With a full-time job, four small kids and a Part 3 exam to study for, I was surprised to discover my heart racing during my very small amount of weekly ‘downtime’ (i.e. lounging in front of the TV on a Sunday night). Over time this progressed to what appeared to be a stomach bug that went on for weeks. I ran out of sick leave, lost 10 kg and wondered whether I’d ever feel ‘good’ again. Without any history of mental illness, even my GP took a while to diagnose the anxiety I was experiencing.

Fast forward to today, and I now have lots of strategies to cope when anxious feelings arise. These include staying active, drinking enough water and spending time with friends. I can also spot the signs and act before it becomes debilitating. I understand that we all need to take care of our mental health, just as we take care of our physical health. Mental illness isn’t something that affects ‘other people’. It can affect all of us – directly and indirectly – at different times in our lives.

Chatting with fellow actuaries this week we reflected on the importance of being more open about mental health in the workplace, yet how challenging this can be. We also talked about how our individual coping strategies, circumstances and genetic makeup can impact our mental health. So rather than contributing more rhetoric to the topic, I’ve collated some top tips from fellow actuaries about how they support their own mental health.

Staying well when life becomes increasingly demanding

Actuary Desmond Muzorewa is a husband and Dad with big career aspirations. Having transitioned to a leadership role within the public sector and relocating to a small town, Desmond found the lack of face-to-face interaction while permanently working from home very challenging.

“While it may sound counterintuitive, striking an optimal work-life balance is hard since it is often difficult to switch off from work”, says Desmond.

As these challenges took their toll, Desmond sought professional psychological support. He shares his practical tips on how he supports his wellbeing below:

  • Volunteer at the Riding for the Disabled once a week in various outdoor type physical roles that are not related to my day-to-day job (allows me to interact physically with people and switch off from work).

  • Spearheaded the establishment of a local parkrun in Port Pirie; which will be launched in a few weeks (allowed me to interact physically with people and switch off from work).

  • Road running.

  • PlayStation.

  • Good nutrition and a responsible and healthy relationship with alcohol.

  • Guided meditation and deep breathing exercises.

  • While a lot of work still needs to be done in this area, I try to work for 7.5 hours and stop.

  • Spread the 7.5 hours throughout the whole day (not strictly sticking to 09:00 – 17:00), subject to working during the core working hours as required by my employer.

  • Interaction with my mentors (senior Actuaries).

     

Maintaining balance and well-being as we transition back to the office

Actuary Michael Storozhev agrees that transitions can be challenging for our well-being. In particular, he highlights the impact that the pandemic has had on our working and home lives.

“Big transitions are not easy, and we have all lived through some of the most significant changes to our working and home life in the last three Covid years – it was tough! Isolation, work-life balance, and so much uncertainty. And now, with the return to the office and hybrid working models, we face the same uncertainty, which can easily lead to extra stress and anxiety.”, says Michael.

So how do we adjust as we return to the office? Michael says he looks forward to taking gradual steps back and using the in-office opportunity with a focus on well-being, and:

  • focus more on personal relationships with our team and colleagues.

  • maximise the chance to connect and socialise when in the office.

  • listen more to those around me to check in on how they are taking the transition.

“Importantly we can’t forget our families, especially young kids, that are now used to seeing much more of mum and dad – so work-life balance will be even more important than ever.”, says Michael.

Actively protecting your sleep in a busy hyperconnected world

One actuary I spoke to this week wears many hats – parent, partner, friend, sibling and child to ageing parents. They take medication and regularly see a psychologist to manage their anxiety symptoms, and they have also identified an important factor to help them stay well in a world that is hard to disconnect from. Here’s what they said:

“Over the years I’ve found quality sleep is the most important thing to manage my well-being. However when under pressure it’s also the first thing that gets squeezed. ‘Get more sleep’ or ‘go to bed earlier’ is great advice but also pretty useless. These days I go to bed at a regular time and I put my phone away. I pick up a pencil and sudoku book and mindlessly (or maybe mindfully) unwind until I naturally fall asleep. It’s not groundbreaking, it’s not super imaginative but it’s an easy routine and it works for me.

So if you want to improve your sleep, the actuary recommends:

  • head to bed around the same time five nights a week.

  • have a bedtime routine that you can do at your most stressed as well as your least stressed.

  • aim to keep your phone away from your bedside.

Actively try to stop comparing yourself to others

Another senior actuary with a steep career trajectory and significant caring responsibilities felt overwhelmed and unable to reach the expectations he’d set for himself. Through seeking professional help for his mental health, he realised that he’d been taught to compare himself to others, which was not helpful for his self-esteem and mental health.

“As someone from a traditional Asian family, I grew up in an environment where I normalised comparing myself to others, and I often felt like I was coming up short. After deciding to address my own mental health issues, a major realisation was that this constant comparison was actively damaging my own self-esteem, leading to depression and anxiety. What was worse, I often compared myself to an idealised version of myself that I couldn’t beat. Now, whenever I start making these comparisons, I actively stop myself and remind myself that whatever I’m doing is enough. Lately, I’ve been more mindful that I am part of a team and don’t need to shoulder everything by myself.”

Conclusion

As actuaries living in a post-pandemic, hybrid working, resource constrained 2022, it has never been more important to take action to support good mental health and reach out for help if needed.

For many of us, some forward-planning and reliable tactics can help us maintain our mental health so we can live, thrive and survive in 2022. For some of us, some of the time, professional support such as medication and therapy will be needed. There is no shame in this – mental health is a human condition that affects us all.

What else do you need to support your mental health?

Resources

  • If you need professional support, please contact your doctor, local health centre or one of the services listed here.
  • If you are having suicidal thoughts, please seek assistance by contacting your trusted healthcare professional or calling Lifeline on 13 11 14.
  • If you are concerned for your safety or the safety of others, seek immediate assistance by calling Triple Zero (000) in Australia.
  • Lots of resources here.

 

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Comments

Image of Matthew Wood
Matthew Wood says

16 September 2022

Wonderful, article, Julia. I think it is so much harder to stay connected in this strange and evolving hybrid working environment but it is so important. The value of real face-to-face daily interaction with work colleagues is so beneficial both for our mental health and for the business. Some of my best ideas have come from off-the-cuff "water-cooler" chats.

And I definitely think the bedroom should be a screen-free zone!!

Image of Yulia Lai
Yulia Lai says

17 September 2022

Hi Julia,

Thanks for the article and collating some useful tips.

Like you pointed out, we will all experience a "mental illness" at some point in our life. In my view, the aim is to get through it intact and be an even stronger person than you were before the experience. You see the world through a different lense when you come out the other end. It can generate creativity and it can even be funny when you look back at it. It's all part of life's journey.


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