Five keys to spiritual and mental wellbeing
Hold on to nurturing habits and share your burdens
Jenny George describes herself as “naturally a reasonably happy person”. And as CEO of Converge International – a corporate mental health provider that supports over two million Australian workers – George is also highly conscious of the need to maintain wellbeing.
But even she admits to having found the long months of Melbourne’s COVID lockdown grind “terrible”.
“I have really noticed how much more difficult it has been, and I really have lost resilience during that period,” George tells Eternity.
One of the main reasons she found lockdown so hard was that she couldn’t engage in group singing. George is a member of The Consort of Melbourne – an eight-voice semi-professional vocal ensemble – and she is also music director at her church, St James’ Old Cathedral – the oldest church in Melbourne, which is led by her husband, Reverend Canon Matt Williams.
“Many of us lost things that we didn’t even realise were important for our mental health. For me, it was singing in a group. I used to do this several times a week, but in lockdown, not at all. I discovered that it was really important for my mental health. And when I don’t have it, [my mental health] has suffered,” George explains.
Not only is group singing key to her mental health, but George discovered it is also vital to her spiritual health.
“Singing is also a way that I pray, and it’s quite an important way that I pray. So that has been difficult during lockdown and at times when we haven’t been able to [get together to] sing. I can sit down at the piano at home, but it’s a bit different if it’s not scheduled in and it’s not part of the rhythm of the week.”
Key 1: Make routines that promote wellbeing
Unsurprisingly, George wasn’t alone in feeling untethered by the COVID pandemic and, in particular, lockdown. In the last 18 months, she says there has been a 10-25 per cent increase in workers accessing Converge’s employee assistance program – a counselling service for work-related and personal issues. The number of workers accessing the program spiked during lockdowns in various states.
“The long grind of lockdown led to increasing amounts of depression and people feeling that they really weren’t coping,” says George.
“We’ve had all sorts of people calling for mental health support who never would in the past. And that’s been added on to people who were already having mental health struggles and found lockdowns exacerbate that and make it more difficult.”
She continues, “As we thought about it, why do people get depressed? Why is that happening? We still have our families; in many cases, we’ve still got our jobs, although not everyone; but you know, life is going on. So what is it that suddenly increases all of this?”
The answer, says George, “in part, it’s that so many habits that we had in our lives got disrupted” – habits like her group singing.
“For other people, it was the ability to go out for a walk in the country or changes in the way we interact with friends. You don’t have the normal routine. You could still have some routine, but you don’t have that habit of having coffee every Monday or lunchtime with a friend, which, as it turns out, was a really important thing for your mental health.”
As life returns to close to normal as people emerge from lockdown and parts of the economy start to bounce back, George stresses the value of holding on to routines that nurture our wellbeing.
She predicts there will be a period when the worst is over during which some people could experience a delayed and serious dip in mental health. This could be particularly true for health care workers, she says, as they will need to continue doing a very difficult job for a long time.
“We’re expecting to see quite burnt-out health workers. I think what people may not have internalised is the healthcare industry and hospitals, especially, are going to be under stress, not even just for the next six months, not even for the next 12 months, but probably for the next two years at least. That’s a very long time.
“Up to now, healthcare workers have been putting in really long hours. They’ve been coping, and they’ve been getting a lot of purpose from doing that. Because we know one of the things that allows us to sometimes have resilience and to keep going is when we deeply feel called; when we really have purpose in what we’re doing. But there’s a point in time where physically, our bodies just can’t keep going at that pace for that long.
She believes healthcare workers need to focus on maintaining a sustainable balance in work and rest so that they can keep doing a really difficult job for the next two years without burning out.
Key 2: Know your limits
George herself does not come from a health care background – in fact, she was originally a mathematician and previously worked in executive roles at Melbourne Business School (at the University of Melbourne) for 17 years before taking up the role as Converge CEO six years ago. But, as a busy manager with a family to juggle – including a ten-year-old son and husband – she does know a lot about managing stress. On top of her roles at work, home and church, she also serves as a director on the board of Dahlsens Building Centres Pty Ltd and volunteers in leadership for the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne.
George has been asked to share her experience and insights as a Christian leader in the workplace at the upcoming 2021 National Prayer Breakfast on 8 November, organised by City Bible Forum, which will again this year be live-streamed from Parliament House in Canberra.
“For me, a part of that is an understanding about how spiritual and mental health connect,” she says.
As her conversation with Eternity unfolds, George reveals more of the strategies she uses to protect her own wellbeing while managing her full life – in no particular order of importance.
“I’m lucky that I am actually quite naturally mentally resilient. But I do notice that there’s a tipping point for me,” she says.
“So I’ve always had times in my life when I’ve taken on one too many things. In fact, I remember 20 years ago, when I was teaching at Melbourne Business School, I took on one more subject. So I was teaching the extra subject and that term, I found myself crying at my desk. That was too many subjects, and I would say no next time.
“So I do have a good sense of where my own capacity is. It is quite big, but there is a capacity limit.”
Key 3: Outsource
“I also know what I have to give up a little bit. So I can’t look after the house and do this,” George says, referring to the many demands on CEOs, including interviews. “So I have a housekeeper who comes in and helps with the house, and I know that’s necessary.”
She declares that women in leadership sometimes don’t make the connection that one of the reasons men have been able to perform executive-level jobs is because they never expect to have to get the vacuum cleaner out of the cupboard.
“Now I’m not advocating that you never get the vacuum cleaner out. (I had a flatmate once who used to say, ‘It’s good for your soul, even if you’re a CEO, to clean your own toilet.’ And I do get that as well.) But at the same time, I think that women sometimes still think that it’s not okay to give some stuff up.”
Key 4 : Rely on ‘the village’
“And then I have an incredibly supportive husband,” George continues. “Because he is a vicar of the church, his schedule is a bit different to mine. He still works incredibly hard, but he works at different times to me, so we can make [our family life] work.
“We also just have a really big ‘extended family’. They’re not actually blood relations, but they are part of our household. We have a dear friend of ours who lives with us and another dear friend lives across the road. And so we’ve got a four-adults-to-one-child ratio. It’s sort of a little village and that makes it possible for me [to be a CEO]. It’s not magic and I’m not superwoman – I do actually have to give up doing stuff.”
Key 5: Pray and memorise Scripture
“We have a head chaplain at Converge and I meet with him regularly for prayer, to pray for the company,” George shares.
“I find that a really helpful way of me also being focused on not just leading the company from a commercial point of view, but leading the company from a spiritual point of view, as well and praying for my colleagues and clients. So having that regularly in the diary is really nice.”
As George now attends an Anglican church, she enjoys praying using liturgy.
“I really love liturgy and I find it a really helpful way to have a rhythm of prayer – to pray words that are in my heart and on my lips that I remember. What I find now with liturgy, is that prayer bubbles up when I remember liturgy.”
George also says her upbringing in a Bible-rich Brethren family plays a big part in nurturing her spiritual wellbeing.
“My mum gave me lots of incentive to memorise a lot of Scripture. So when I was a kid, Mum used to pay me pocket money to memorise Bible verses. So I ended up memorising the whole of the Sermon on the Mount at one stage. Then there were various chapters we learned like Colossians 1 and Philippians 2. That’s really useful too, because it means that Scripture is constantly bubbling in my mind. I really value that.”
To register for the National Prayer Breakfast, visit City Bible Forum.