How learning to be playful saved my life, in the long journey back from the depths of depression
Enoch Li is the founder of Bearapy, which helps companies navigate organisational changes using a psychodynamic approach that incorporates mental health into corporate culture. She draws on her personal experience with burnout and depression to help others, and tries to look at mental health in the workplace through a different lens
“We come to the office to work, not play! Play is for kids!”
This is a common response I get when talking to companies about creating a culture of playfulness among staff. Also common are the awkward looks when I mention I have had clinical depression. The two are inextricably linked – especially if we are to prevent more people suffering burnout and sinking into depression, and maintain our emotional and mental wellness.
High-pressure Hong Kong
For many people growing up in Hong Kong, the “rat race” starts as early as kindergarten where kids feel the pressure to attain perfect grades. The “tiger mum” style of parenting pushes children to perform while adorning CVs with extracurricular activities that signal the right attributes to prospective future employers. Suffice to say, for many of Hong Kong’s children, there isn’t a lot of space for fun and play, for it is deemed unproductive.
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By the time these children have been in the workforce for five years, it’s likely that they’ve been subjected to performance pressure for 20 years of their life. This pressure begins to take its toll and shows up in physical ailments such as headaches and regular colds.
This story I know all too well …
As a student, I strived to be super perfect: grades, social demeanour, CV, etc. After university, my mindset didn’t change although I secured a prestigious position with an international bank and spent the next seven years as an expat working in glamorous cities including Paris, London and Tokyo. I believed I was enjoying myself and ignored the frequent headaches and stomach pains.
My fairy tale story came to an abrupt end in 2009. The headaches worsened and became migraines – first once a week, then once every few days, and then every day. They were so debilitating that I would vomit and collapse with dizziness. After multiple variations on pain medication, my GP suggested I see a counsellor for “stress issues”. I smirked. “I am 28 years old. I am not stressed. I can deal with it,” I said.
One day, as I was embarking on another painkiller-loaded business trip, I collapsed with another migraine. The emergency doctor said I was already on the strongest medicine she had; the only other alternative was a morphine shot. Morphine! Finally, the gravity of my situation began to hit home. I relented and saw a psychologist after I had visualised drowning myself in the bathtub. The psychologist pronounced: “Enoch, you have severe clinical depression.” My matter-of-fact response was: “When do I go back to work?”
It was downhill from there. I felt an unparalleled anguish with no way out. I stopped eating, and lost about 10 kilos. As I sunk deeper into my depression, all vigour left me. I stayed in bed all day and demanded the curtains were closed. I cried, I screamed, I hit my head on the wall, I tried to overdose with my sleeping pills and antidepressants. I felt utterly helpless and shut myself away from the world.
I berated myself for being depressed. What was wrong with me? I seemingly had all the hallmarks of success – youth, enviable career, achievements … But it never felt enough. I assumed society’s expectations of me, that as a female leader I had to be “strong”, that I needed to prove myself incessantly.
I felt so alone. And so must the millions of sufferers of depression. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates 350 million people around the world have depression, and it will become a global disease burden by 2020, i.e. depression will kill more people than heart disease. The cost to companies’ bottom lines is staggering: the WHO’s 2017 World Mental Health Day report shows that the annual costs of mental health problems are estimated at US$2.5 trillion, and expected to rise to US$6 trillion by 2030.
Seeing this widespread phenomenon as I came out of depression a few years later, I asked myself, what can I do to help?
Dare to be playful
I decided to bring my personal experience into my work as a consultant for internal change management. I hoped companies would put executive mental well-being at the top of their agenda. Playfulness was one way to achieve that goal, evident in my journey out of depression.
As I went through the emotional roller-coaster of depression, my boyfriend managed to drag me out of the apartment one day. Chance happened that I loitered around a toy shop and began smiling – at a stuffed toy polar bear in the window. Noticing my smile (that had been absent for months), he bought the bear. I named him “Floppie, as he just flops around all day and doesn’t do anything” (just like me).
I started to collect these toy bears and gave them names and personalities. They created a safe space for me to project my fears onto them, to analyse myself, and to face myself, for they represented different facets of me: the banker bear, the snobby bear, the arty bear ...
The life-saving revelation I unearthed through playing with my bears was that I was wearing a mask for the 30-odd years prior to the depression.
Psychotherapy and medication helped with the depression, but to find my true self, the bears were key. As I emerged from depression, I took the bears on soul-searching trips, taking photos of them, and amused myself with a photo blog. This was how I engaged my brain, my imagination, my fantasies, my thoughts, my emotions, and my reason. They instilled life in me once more – I learned to “play” again.
Play at work
Playfulness is an ambiguous concept to define. Abstract as it sounds, play is around us everywhere – even when we do not realise we are “playing”. There are many different types of play – individual (such as daydreaming, drawing, reading) and social (such as games).
Managers are concerned that “play” could distract from work, and the frequent worry is that it would be “unprofessional” and “immature”.
Play positively impacts health and well-being by relieving stress, building social bonds and inspiring creativity, enhancing employee engagement and team collaboration.
Taking executive mental well-being seriously
Many of us are wrought with fatigue, tension headaches, frequent colds, stomach aches, and have lost interest in our work and lives, living with lethargy. There is hope yet. More and more companies are concerned about their employees’ well-being, with a growing trend for companies to also promote mental fitness alongside physical health.
Indeed, investing in the mental health of employees is profitable for the bottom line. The World Economic Forum estimates that US$1 of investment into treatment for depression and anxiety leads to a return of US$4 in better health and ability to work, with a diffusing positive impact, from the individual to families, communities, and society at large.
Towards a mentally healthy world
We all face stress every day. The key is how we cope with it. A playful mindset is one we can have throughout the day. Sometimes, the playfulness is in our head, for a few seconds. We can all find our own way of being playful.
Play is not just for children. Learning to play again saved my adult life.
Mental health in the workplace is one key theme of the upcoming Hong Kong Mental Health Conference in early November.World Mental Health Day is observed on October 10 every year. This year’s theme was “mental health in the workplace”.