Staying sane while staying apart

The real untold story of a leader dealing with stress and anxiety

If you work in property, development and construction, chances are that when you think of the health, well-being and safety of your team, you might understandably first think of hard hats and hi-vis vests. But what lies beneath needs as much attention – our mental health. 

While COVID-19 has quite rightly pushed the issue into the spotlight and prompted a $48M Federal Government investment in services like Lifeline and Kids Helpline, mental health is a constant and not just in the midst of a global crises. While many of us shy away from the topic, the more we talk about it, not only do we realise how prevalent mental health concerns are, but we also move closer to smashing the stigma behind it and better embody what it can mean to truly care for the whole person.

Mal Brown is a Principal at Northrop. Here he shares his own personal journey with stress and anxiety.

COVID-19 is enough to make the average person shudder when they hear it

The words social distancing and isolation are synonymous with COVID-19 - and to those with already fragile health, could be enough to make your world fall apart. At work and in my home life, I am a very social person – your typical extrovert who thrives off interactions with colleagues, peers and friends. How would this play out for me while we were in lockdown?

As it turns out, several weeks into isolation and – surprisingly well! I’m feeling good for those who ask. For many of ‘us’ – those who struggle with mental health, and those without – I recognise things may not be so good. This is especially so if there is an underlying mental health issue. In a recent poll of my peers, 44% said they were struggling with work life balance. I feel obliged to check in with you and ask the question… So, R U OK? Before you answer, I’d like to share my story with you, parts of which might resonate in our busy development industry.

My awkward journey with stress and anxiety

We all get a bit stressed at work. Some of us also get anxious. A little bit of both is good, right? We hear about the “inverted U” theory and those who thrive on the adrenaline of deadlines. Maybe. Maybe not. At what point does too much stress and anxiety become detrimental and out of control? For me, it was after 30-odd years in my career.

I took on a job with more responsibility and I had some nagging self-doubt which played on my mind. And other stuff. You might ask why I’m sharing this information with you and exposing my vulnerabilities. Partially due to my newfound support and understanding of speaking up and having the conversation around work-related issues. I refuse to be shackled by the stigma that has often been associated with speaking up. And as a leader at Northrop, I believe I should lead by example and model this behaviour to my colleagues. But maybe others who read this can relate to my story and it helps them. Sprinkled throughout my journey, what you’ll find is some good advice and my own mistakes to hopefully learn from – which might make it more human and relatable.

A shopping list of experiences

Stress and anxiety can manifest in a number of ways. Mine were completely textbook physical and emotional responses. Teeth grinding by day, but especially in my sleep, tension around my shoulders, neck and head. Racing heartbeat and thoughts. Poor sleep, leading to increased intolerance and a short temper. And the guilt that I feel when it’s directed at the people I care about the most – my family. Living with this shopping list of negative experiences is no fun for me, nor for those around me. And I am also concerned about my long-term health and the potential for this stress to lead to other more serious problems which can occur.

My first mistake

Many people with stress and anxiety symptoms typically ignore them and hope they will go away. I think I realised the problem early and took myself off to a GP for a chat. What I didn’t expect was to be prescribed with some anxiety pills (what some would say is the scourge of Western medicine – a pill for everything). The more I thought about it, the more I realised a few things:

  1. I couldn’t really tell if the pills were having any significant positive effect.
  2. Thanks to Dr Google (which I don’t recommend), I saw my future embedded in a medium to long-term pill dependency.

I decided to stop taking the medication and look for an alternative.

Bumbling on

I felt empowered by my decision to reject pills. And while I have no regrets about that decision, my next mistake was that I didn’t replace them with anything other than false hope and crossed fingers. Consequently, but also not surprisingly, my stress and anxiety spiralled, and the symptoms worsened. Luckily, some time earlier, my workplace had hosted two excellent inspiration sessions for our staff – one on mental health (RUOK?), another on wellness (including mindfulness). While I didn’t think I needed that help at the time, the tools were there when I needed them – and were key to helping me reverse my downward slide.

The right stuff

Our whole group at work had tried meditation during the wellness session. Immediately afterward, I had felt a lot more ‘present’, and my thoughts were clearer. Feeling inspired and intrigued, I downloaded some mindfulness apps and tried meditating.

Trust me, I’m no hippy or alternative medicine zealot, but I found what works for me. In fact, it’s been amazing! One particular app I like is called Headspace. Not only are the first 10 sessions free but these guided meditations by mindfulness expert Andy Puddicombe (with his incredibly soothing English accent) are so easy to dip into when and where you need a hit of calm and perspective.

Headspace teaches simple concepts through analogies like: thoughts are always running along a road in your mind. People who try to control their thoughts trip up the flow and cause problems. Our job is to sit by the road and observe (not judge or interfere) with our thoughts. Another analogy is that our thoughts can be visualised as clouds in the sky. Sometimes they are dark clouds and there may be a lot of them. But, the blue sky is always up there and we can find this place of calm despite the clouds getting in the way. Sounds simple, but it takes practice, in my case for just 10 minutes every day (you can do more if you want). I look forward to that time every day.

Headspace apparently has 31 million users on its platform, so it’s tried and tested, but the great news is there are many other meditation apps to choose from depending on what you’re looking for. Another technique I use is known as Progressive Muscle Relaxation, which is great for releasing the muscle tension in our bodies, and can be accessed on YouTube. It’s a fantastic way to prepare your mind and body for a deep sleep.

Getting a grip

So, in summary, getting a handle on my stress and anxiety was relatively easy. I can’t explain how it all works in my brain. But, even after 10 days, I had improved a lot. I’m able to recognise and observe my symptoms, and I’m generally calmer. I am also able to focus better and longer, and I’ve found it helps with my sleep. And I’m easier to live with. I still have some stress and anxiety, but it has diminished, and I feel confident that continued mindfulness will really help. And importantly for me: it doesn’t come in a pill jar.

Note that this has been my experience, and I would say that my situation reflects relatively mild stress and anxiety. Others may be starting from a much more acute situation, and their response times and degree of success can vary. I also point out that I am very physically active which has been a constant throughout and I recommend some regular physical activity as part of any mentally healthy lifestyle.

The first step last

After all this effort, I did last what I should have done first. I booked an appointment with one of Northrop’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) counsellors. My EAP (Clinical Psychologist) in Sydney is very strategy-orientated. This means she doesn’t just listen; she suggests a range of strategies to try to mitigate and manage stress and anxiety. One of those is, you guessed it, mindfulness. 


From what I read and the conversations I have had, it seems the stress and anxiety that I experience is not unusual. What my story highlights are the strategies and professional help that are readily accessible, easy to do, and helpful. It also shines a light on some of the mistakes we tend to make. We think we can cope or that stress and anxiety will just go away. They might, but you’d be lucky if that was the case.

Key takeaways 

  • Seek professional help early. EAP providers can assist in connecting you with people who can help.
  • Try mindfulness and meditation on an app like Headspace. Commit to doing 10 days in a row and see how you feel.

Stress and anxiety are only one component of the RUOK? message. It is not my intent to trivialise other issues or concerns.

Good luck on your journey, and fingers crossed for being able to meet up in person, soon.


Mal Brown

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