Is it me or is everyone in the world anxious right now? Honestly, my parents are anxious about getting older. My friends are anxious about their jobs and their mortgages. My employees are anxious about the cost of living and the whole world is anxious about the prospect of nuclear war. I’m sure anxiety has always been there, but I’m also convinced that it’s been exacerbated and highlighted by two years of the COVID pandemic.
I’ve also noticed a change in the workplace too with GenZ employees far more vocal about their anxiety levels. I’m now in my 30s and in my late teens and early 20s, the main thing that made me anxious was proving myself, becoming successful and doing well. At the time, I was working as a journalist in one of the world’s oldest and most prominent television newsrooms, ITN. Somehow I managed to wangle a job there during university simply by writing an email to the then editor and now CEO of BBC News, Deborah Turness. It was my first proper job and I was a total blank canvas. I’ll be the first to admit I was a little precocious at that time which sometimes helped and sometimes hindered me.
I learned quickly on the job. But not having much life experience made it difficult for me to have perspective on how I should behave in the world of work. In hindsight, I’d have been so much better prepared had I had some life experience under my belt, had I had another job and had I understood a bit more about how the world works.
Having said all that, I was given opportunities that I could never have dreamed of at a very young age and because ITN is so much smaller than the BBC, you really were a big fish in a small pond. The collegiate atmosphere of the newsroom enabled everyone to pull together, especially with such tight deadlines to produce three national news bulletins daily.
Despite being so young, I was pretty good at hiding when I was stressed though I do remember one day in particular, just before the lunchtime news, when something went wrong. I can’t remember exactly what it was—I’ve probably blocked it from my mind—but I remember boiling over, showing my stress and not handling it particularly well. And it was right there in that moment that one of my colleagues turned to me and uttered words that I remember and quote to this day, almost 20 years on: “We’re only making news, we’re not saving lives.”
Anna-Lisa Fuglesang was only a few years older than me but by painting the picture of me pitched against a surgeon with a patient’s life in their hands, her calm and reassuring words changed something in me that day. I relaxed for the first time. I settled into my role. I took myself (a little) less seriously and used that quote almost religiously.
A few years later, I found myself in Downing Street on the day of the G20 summit. Feet away from the Obamas and lapping up the crazy world I worked in, imagine my surprise when, during a lull in the day when most other journalists had packed up, a Downing Street press officer said that the Prime Minister Gordon Brown wanted to do an interview and it was ITN’s turn to do it. “Now!” they barked. I looked around and it dawned on me that it was going to have to be me who had to do it. I was the most junior member of staff but within seconds I was walking into Downing Street to interview the man who held Britain’s nuclear codes. I barely had time to think but, you guessed it, up popped that quote into my head.
I know now that I could have asked the Prime Minister what colour underwear he was wearing and I still would have been given the answers he wanted to give me but that baptism of fire gave me a fresh benchmark to use.
I use the quote to this day and it’s something I have taken into my own businesses. But landing the message—as any founder or CEO will know—is not always easy. Just because you say and believe something, it doesn’t mean that it settles or cascades to your team.
Teams need benchmarks. Much like I use nuggets from my journalism days as benchmarks for my career today (my favourite is that if I can interview my idol Janet Jackson then anything else is walk in the park), your team and employees will only believe that they can relax into their roles if they have benchmarks.
So why exactly is it so hard for everyone to have a little perspective right now? Well for the GenZ employees, it’s simple. They don’t have any benchmarks. And what about everyone else? Why do we live in a hyper-anxious world where resilience seems to have evaporated? It’s likely because today we are bombarded left, right, and centre by messages on social media that show us how much bad is going on in the world. We’ve had three years of doom and gloom, a global pandemic, a recession and a cost of living crisis. We should be forgiven for feeling anxious. But those who will thrive the most and those who will succeed, hopefully anxiety free, are those with benchmarks.
So find your own personal benchmark, persevere, and remember: you’re not saving lives. Unless you are of course. In which case, good luck. I have no advice for you.