The Foreign Service Journal, July-August 2024

STATE VP VOICE | BY HUI JUN TINA WONG Contact: | (202)-647-8160 Countering Mental and Physical Burnout at Work “Constant crisis mode.” “Mentally exhausting.” “Facing burnout.” These are just a few of the words I’ve heard to describe how all of us feel at some point during our Foreign Service careers. These experiences are particularly evident during the performance evaluations (EER), bidding, and summer transfer seasons that straddle March through November. We tackle these major internal management demands while facing global challenges such as the Israel-Hamas conflict, humanitarian crises, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, or global strategic competition. As you read, I invite you to hold up your arms, hold each of your fists together, close your eyes, and pause, taking a long, deep breath. According to the department’s Employee Consultation Services (ECS), this is a great daily counter-burnout mental health strategy. Knowing the Mental Health Crisis and Agency Response. I recognize these daily exercises are not a panacea. Globally, the World Health Organization says nearly 1 billion individuals live with a mental health condition. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) dedicates resources for mental health wellness, and the State Department has modernized the medical clearance process by increasing transparency and broadening options for those facing mental health issues and those with dependent special educational needs. Several months ago, ECS launched a series of videos designed to “enlighten, inspire, and empower,” and there are support groups and other resources on Talent Care. Defining Transformational Spaces. Meanwhile, there is a different space to challenge these thoughts and improve our mental health. It is akin to a “brave space” where there is open and respectful dialogue about challenging topics affecting us and the world around us. It is also a place where we encourage the sharing of perspectives without fear of judgment, exclusion, or discrimination. It is simultaneously a mental and physical space, requiring all participants to be self-aware and intentional in all the modalities of listening, speaking, and responding to one another. I strongly believe all our overseas missions would be more effective, productive, and healthy if we were to begin the transformational process of co-creating these spaces on a regular basis. Learning from a Breakout Leader. Prior to joining the Foreign Service, I was part of a group of young professionals creating local and global transformational spaces for dialogue and civic action. Jessica Rimington, executive director of the One World Youth Project, trained our group of “breakout actors.” The spaces we created gave me some of my happiest memories and most creative times, particularly after I resigned from a mentally taxing job at a nongovernmental organization. More than a decade after she worked with us, Rimington embarked on an expansive journey interviewing some 200 CEOs and leaders of nonprofit organizations. In 2022, Rimington published her findings in her book Beloved Economies, detailing lessons learned from companies and communities that practiced novel ways of working and team-building. She argues for management practices that would re-imagine our world from a loveless or extractive economy into one that is lifegiving and sustainably activates breakout innovations. Prioritizing Relationships. One of Rimington’s recommended practices—prioritizing relationships—is especially relevant to our Foreign Service work culture. Prioritizing relationships does not leverage internal or external relationships in a transactional way. Rather the practice calls for us to be countercultural in three dimensions: culture of care, brave conversations, and the cultivation of a relational worldview. Breakout actors dedicate time for care and connection that is not about getting things done. For example, leaders can start meetings with check-in questions such as: “What is our weekend highlight?” We can also dedicate time to pull colleagues aside to share our appreciation for their work or other achievements. The key is to activate these check-ins cumulatively without seeking to extract any other answers or resources in return. These small acts enable us to foster an ethic of daily care. Breakout actors are investing in relationships to achieve a deeper level of engagement that enables members of the group to respectfully challenge each other. The connective tissue between a caring culture and brave conversations is a relational worldview. This is about rooting our work in the vast interconnectedness of all beings and forces, rather than our own ambitions, or, simply put, helping us break out of our “main-character syndrome.” These tips may sound simultaneously basic and unfamiliar. Maybe you are always goal-oriented and find it hard to believe that decades from now, what will matter most is not what we achieved but how we treated others and ourselves. I challenge you to join me in co-creating these transformational spaces at our work every day. n 50 JULY AUGUST 2024 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL AFSA NEWS