What we say

I’m fine, I’m ok – the masters of mental health disguise

Siân Hurst

May 6, 2022

How are you? It’s a simple question that we ask our friends, family and colleagues dozens of times each day, without really thinking much about it.

Occasionally, we do really mean it, but most of the time, particularly at work, we say it out of habit. It’s become synonymous with saying hello and opening a conversation.

While the intention behind the question is innocent, the way we answer it can affect us profoundly.

I know from experience being a busy MD that when people ask how I am, my default is to say, “I’m fine”, “I’m ok”, or “I’m all good” in my usual cheerful voice.

However, many years ago now, I learnt that saying “I’m fine” without properly thinking about my answer, isn’t always helpful – either to myself or those around me. It resulted in me internalising stress and becoming ill. And it resulted in my colleagues feeling guilty because they thought I was ok when I wasn’t.

You’re probably thinking, why did she do that? How stupid. But it’s not that simple. Being a strong, intelligent woman and successful MD doesn’t make me immune from making mistakes. I thought I was ok, albeit tired, under pressure and incredibly busy, until I really wasn’t ok and then it was too late. The damage was done and my body and mind needed time off to heal and recover.

I’ve learnt a lot over the years, but one of the most important, perhaps simplest things has been not to default to the autopilot language of “I’m ok” and “I’m fine”.

I passed on this learning to someone in our team recently and it worked. We agreed to only ask the question “how are you?” if we were prepared to give and listen to a proper answer. We also banned the words “I’m fine” and “I’m ok” to force a different type of conversation between us – thanks to Neil Crump for the training on this.

The impact was significant. She had to really think about the question and how she felt, and I had to really listen to what she was saying and what it meant, good and bad. We also implemented a rating system for each day, whereby a one meant she was having a tough day, to a ten which meant she was having a good day. It compelled her to think about what had happened throughout the day and to assess the sum of the day’s parts. We then unpacked ‘the number’ to delve more deeply into the good and bad, and put strategies in place to mitigate the number dropping on future days.

While we don’t use this technique all the time, it helped us both navigate through a busy period and is a tool in our back pockets for whenever we need it.

It’s such a simple skill that I wish I’d known about earlier in my career. So, to recognise Mental Health Awareness Week (9-15 May 2022) this year, I’ve challenged our team to try it out for themselves.

For one week, we’ve banned the words “I’m fine” and “I’m ok”, in search of more meaningful answers. I hope that sharing this technique with the whole team will help us stay true to our core value which is ‘the health of our team drives the health of our business’.

If you feel like trying it with your work colleagues, I’d love to hear the results!