Mental health at work…when your home may be blown up

Picture of Valeriya Yuskevych

Valeriya Yuskevych

Principal Consultant

The biggest tragedy in my life has been losing my Mum at the age of 24.

That was until the early morning of 24th of February 2022 when explosions started appearing around Ukraine, my only home until the age of 13. Since 2006, I’ve been lucky to call the United Kingdom my home too.

Ukrainians have a long and proud history (albeit with some dark patches) since Kyiv was founded by tribes roaming around Ukraine in 482AB. Ukrainians have always pursued freedom and independence throughout their history. Since the annexation of Crimea and ongoing military confrontation in Donbas in 2014, we have lived with uncertainty. We’ve been watching a furuncle about to burst and eventually, I regret to say it has happened.

Since 24th of February 2022, Ukrainians do not switch off their phone before bed, they pick up calls at any time of day regardless of what they are doing: a work meeting, shopping for groceries, a dinner with friends – they excuse themselves and they pick up that call. As a Ukrainian I am alert. All of the time.

I am a management consultant by day which means my brain is always on, and solving problems is what I do. However, working in my London home when my home in Ukraine may be blown up at any point is a next level challenge and the biggest possible distraction that I could face.

You’d be excused for asking “isn’t the war in Ukraine over now?” In project management, we often use the “red-amber-green” status to report on project progress, where red signifies serious issues; amber some issues; and green the project is on track. So, by that logic, Ukraine has been, and still is reporting “red.” It might have even been a shade darker or a shade lighter but since the war began it has always been flagging “red,” at least for Ukrainians. As there hasn’t been any significant change – despite continuous bombardment and increasing casualties – this emergency has taken a back seat in the news.

Psychologists say that people get used to things, however bad the situation and I have often found this to be true. I have figured out a way to stay motivated at work and be as happy as I can be given the explosions over my home in Ukraine, which by the way is a mere 2-hour flight from London. I do have a keen interest in psychology and business coaching, but I am by no means a specialist. Despite this, I have taken the liability and pulled together a few things that I have learnt over the last few months that made it possible for me to remain effective at work:

Define what you can influence – Creating this list enabled me to prevent descending into utter chaos and remaining focused on what I can solve rather than what I can’t. For example, I may not be able to stop rocket launches, but as long as I am working and receiving a salary, I am able to support my friends on the front line by providing additional food, bullet proof vests, cars, or even booking flights for my friend looking to bring her 3 children to safety. The list goes on.

Check in with yourself – Our bodies are capable of incredible things. My body enabled me to stay up 120 hours in a row and work around the clock to apply everything that I’ve ever learnt to help foreign students board a ship and leave Ukraine quickly. I gained a newfound respect for my body and learnt to listen to it. I changed my mantra 180 degrees to: “if you think you can’t, then you can’t.” If you think you need time off to solve a problem then, do it. This leads me onto…

Strong support network – I fundamentally believe that all people, given the chance are willing to help. Ultimately, “the salvation of the drowning is the work of the drowning themselves,” meaning that the responsibility is on ourselves to figure out what support we need. Do not be afraid to leverage the input of those who know you best in addition to seeking help from professional organisations (HR, GPs). And then, and this is really important – voice it. On 24th of February, I sat myself down and hand-on-heart confessed to myself that I would not be able to deliver the best value for my client. Finyx responded to my ask of 1 week off with a counter offer of 2-week compassionate leave (and that was less than 2 months since I joined), thus, demonstrating our Finyx ethos to always do the right thing for our clients and employees. Should I need to reprioritise my day priorities due to something urgent in Ukraine, I am open with my team about my needs, and they always support me.

Ask someone to watch you – Although this sounds extreme, it proved to be very effective. When we doubt our capacity to do work effectively, what do we do? That’s right, we hire someone else to do it! Going by this principle, I’ve asked my partner to watch out for changes in my behaviour and authorised him to do whatever he thinks is necessary to rebalance me and put me back to healthy levels of pressure, such as confiscate my phone and order me to go for walk (alas, Ben & Jerry’s deliveries don’t seem to be covered by this arrangement!)

Do things that energise you – Being under constant pressure burns up body resources including your brain, and even though we may not always realise it we may need more rest. I found that I can rebalance myself by doing things that bring me energy such as baking a cake. However, I’ve found the most effective energiser is exercising and fresh air. I guess, when mental health is overloaded, physical health can rebalance.

Prepare for the worst-case scenario – In one of my past projects, where I was a networks projects manager at a major global bank, I had to draw up the worst case scenario with prior consultation from the engineers and sign off from the business, e.g. what course of action should we take if 9000 ATMs go out of service at the same time in 24 hours? I apply exactly the same principle now. I know what would happen if my home in Ukraine is blown up. But I do what I can to prevent it from happening (see point 1.) And that’s all that I am able to do. And I’ve got to be happy with that.