The theme for #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek this year is Loneliness. I’m seeing a lot of posts talking about increased loneliness during the pandemic and due to changes in the way we work and socialise. This is expected – but I don’t think we’ve figured out exactly how wide the impacts are yet.

However, I’d like to talk about feeling lonely when you are surrounded by others.

The loneliest I have ever felt was when I was a Head of Department. The Department, staff and students were all lovely, and very friendly, but I was suddenly in charge and responsible (all be it in a shared way – 4 of us shared Head of Dept at that time) for people with whom I had “grown up”, academically and employment wise. Suddenly I couldn’t share the work challenges as I used to (especially as my bit of HoD work related to academic staff and teaching). I had to tell my peers to do stuff that they would rather not have done. The weirdest bit was doing the development review of my former PhD supervisor (only in academia!!). I vividly remember staring at my computer or out of the window thinking “I am on my own. There is no-one”, and recalling this still makes me take a deep breath.

Fortunately, there were a couple of other Heads of other Departments who reached out for coffee and we tried to build a network with others. I had a couple of good mentors internal and external to the organisation and a few people at all points in the hierarchy who always had my back (even if I didn’t know it before a particular event). Thanks to them, I figured it out (mostly)!

It’s great to promote from within – and I am sooo proud of having been Head of Department. But please look after, and look out for, your newly promoted Heads of Department!

This was but a small taste of what it feels like to be alone in the workplace, to “not belong”. I am privileged to be in a position where I have felt this only fleetingly compared to many from under-represented communities, or those who “mask” at work due to prejudice and discrimination. This is why it’s so important to build workplaces where a) people feel like they belong and b) people feel safe enough to reach out when they are struggling.

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