Disclaimer: The analysis, views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author and they do not necessarily purport to reflect the opinions or views of Alphabet Inc. or its entities.
A few weeks ago, I was attending a training session on coaching skills. We were asked to think of something with which we were struggling — a problem. Each person would then take their “problem” and develop a coaching strategy. Thinking through the many problems and challenges I’ve had, I realized that the most insidious one was the inability to mentally disconnect and to have focused, deep and meaningful interactions with my teammates, friends and family.
When it was my turn to share, for reasons that are still unclear to me, the image of a closet with an empty shelf came to mind. This is what I told the instructor:
“I don’t have any mental white space. I picture my brain like a closet with no open space. The shelves are all full — there is no mental white space left. I am constantly thinking about work, what I have done, what I am doing, and what I can do next. I wish I had mental room left over to use when I want”. I was asked to explain further what I meant by mental white space, so I decided to write about it.
I am certainly not the exception. According to a Harvard Business Review survey conducted in early 2021, respondents overwhelmingly reported mental health declines during the pandemic, as well as feelings of loneliness and isolation. At times I have noticed that my “fuse” has gotten a few inches shorter, finding myself angrier for no particular reason. The issue of mental stressors is deeply personal and is something that has been bothering me and many others for quite a while.
For those working in the executive protection space, particularly those assigned to pre-planning and conducting advance work, understanding the importance of a buffer or what some know as physical “white space” is critical. There are much better definitions out there, but to keep it simple, a buffer or white space is known to be the physical space between any possible threat or attacker and the target you are trying to protect.
In protection, time and distance are directly proportional: as space increases, the time an attacker requires to reach the target also increases which, in turn, reduces the likelihood of a successful physical attack.
Advance teams have the responsibility of creating and maintaining these environmental conditions prior to the protectee’s event or engagement. Teams can also recreate these conditions through technical and mechanical means (such as fencing and other physical barriers), but I’ll leave that to the experts. The bottom line is that good protection teams master the art of meticulous advanced work, which includes creating, owning, controlling and managing physical space.
These types of protective operations become increasingly challenging whenever the protectee shifts from a static condition to a mobile one. Similar to how an elastic band stretches, unplanned and uncoordinated events such as walking towards a crowd create variations of the space buffer and exposure levels to physical attacks. Agents are trained to think of plausible scenarios, but sometimes maintaining full control over the white space can be difficult to achieve. Based on the above, we can deduce that the autonomy to decide what happens (or not) within the protected space directly affects the likelihood of a successful physical attack.
Okay, but how does this relate to well-being? Well, let’s use the protection analogy and think of mental white space as the buffer between you and your work. What if, similar to what experts do in executive protection, this mental white space was also a requirement and not an option? What if you were able to establish an enforceable perimeter (e.g., draft internal policies, team rules, etc.) to reduce the exposure levels to mental burnout? We have been told that it is “okay” to block time on our calendars for personal time but, let’s be honest, that approach may not be as effective as we think it is. It would be like giving protective agents the “option” of maintaining a buffer based on their personal preference. It’s not optional, it’s policy.
Some companies have established what they call “protected time” or “no meetings day.” Protected time is exactly what I meant by mental white space during my coaching class — an empty shelf in your mental closet. It is a dedicated, predictable, and truly protected time for you to schedule whatever you want to in it. While a no meeting day is nice to have, this is a tricky and relatively porous strategy. If your boss asks if you can meet two weeks before your performance review, would you say no? I don’t believe so.
Similar to physical white space, mental white space applies to everyone without distinction. It should be visible and explicit: “Warning: stay back 200ft” kind of explicit. Your mental white space should be protected and access to it tightly controlled. Also, like the moving protectee, we should remind our organizations that the risk of burnout increases whenever someone (including ourselves) deliberately alters our mental space. Thinking about this as a collective duty and understanding its consequences will drastically decrease negligent and accidental access into our protected time.
In closing, security leaders have to be pragmatic and intuitive when approaching the well-being of their team members. The notion that “work-life balance” and remote work can easily coexist is naïve. Our work is literally inside our homes, which, without proper safeguards, may distort which is which. Remote work requires strong company and team policies as well as enforcement mechanisms to help delineate the “no work” zones, which includes careful considerations of what constitutes “regular” working hours.
The good news is that work and life, whatever those terms mean to you, can coexist. Ingenuity, adaptive thinking and a willingness to embrace change are paramount in achieving this. Security leaders, at all levels, are responsible for setting precedents, norms and boundaries so their teams have quality time that can help to decrease the risk of burnout and promote strong norms for well-being.