“I’m suddenly really into basketball again. I’m back into photography again,” says Dr Sarb Johal, clinical psychologist, consultant and Managing Director of Equanimity Limited. “Partly I think it’s because I see myself in my kids and the things that they’re interested in which overlap with what I was interested in; being curious about where those interests led me and why I stopped doing those things.”
A somewhat accidental psychologist, Sarb had a couple of false starts to his study of the discipline and nearly left to become a full-time DJ. “I was playing big clubs in Cardiff the whole time I was doing my PhD and even DJed a gig with Paul Oakenfold once. But eventually my advisor made me choose and, because I was on a scholarship, I knew I had to stick with the degree. But I really regretted it for a while. After about 6 months, I realised how much of my life and self had been tied up in that DJ scene.”
We could all do, he says, with reconnecting more with those early passions of our younger selves. “If you can find a solidity of identity – which can be particularly challenging when you move place because, when you do, you leave a little bit of you behind – by bringing a little bit of that earlier you to where you are now, in both time and place, it can be a really positive and integrating experience.”
“I’m suddenly really into basketball again. I’m back into photography again,”
Since emigrating to New Zealand in the early 2000s, Sarb has worked in academia, government and clinical practice, “helping people and organisations find their way through challenging times with greater equanimity, resilience and connection.” He was instrumental in the crisis response to both the H1N1 (‘Bird Flu’) pandemic as well as the Canterbury Earthquakes and, more recently, the COVID-19 pandemic. He is a contributing writer for Psychology Today, a public speaker and a YouTuber who works to transform complex psychological concepts into practical, real-world advice.
“I have about 30 years of experience in the field, which is scary now that I think about it,” he laughs. “I’ve worked with a lot of client groups in both the UK and New Zealand but now I tend to do more strategic advice and public mental health, particularly focused on the 80% of people who are going to get through alright but maybe need some advice on things that are causing them to wobble in their lives. And also thinking about those people who are tasked to help other people: the helpers, the people who may be carrying a burden of whatever’s going on in their own life while also caring for other people.”
So much of the field, he says, is focused on research, much of which never trickles down to the people who might really need it. “I used to run a podcast called Who Cares? What’s the Point?
where I interviewed psychologists from around the world to talk about their research and how we could use it in every day life. My focus over the last few years has been in application; making sure that that knowledge is out there in as digestible and usable way as possible.”
One of the ways that he’s putting these concepts to good use is by working in partnerships with businesses to build organisational resilience. “Organisational resilience is a tough space. Businesses love it because its a framework where they can do something or, more cynically, protect themselves. But, if you’re not careful, it can push the responsibility onto the individual to take care of themselves and absolve the organisation from doing too much. The key, I think, is to look at the working environment and how it is supporting staff to not burn out.”
It’s important to examine the intensity of the workload, he says, and determine if staff are being asked to do high intensity tasks all the time, without giving consideration to the whole person. When this is the case, it can often lead to discontent and staff attrition. Sarb also works with individual staff members and teams within those workplaces to determine what factors might be making their experience work particularly challenging. “Often it’s stuff that’s going on at home which is overlapping with what’s going on at work. If you’re having trouble sleeping, for instance, that’s going to make it harder to pay attention, to be efficient and to be empathetic in your role.
“Replenishment and refreshment are critical to sustain mental well-being. You’ll see people starting to cross off the enjoyable parts of their job or their life as ‘nice-to-haves’. Then, six months down the line, they’ll be completely drained and demotivated, wondering why no one’s calling and all the social and connected activities in their lives have fallen out of their diary.”
This has been particularly true for many during the COVID-19 pandemic, he says. “We know that connection is our best support during times of crisis and our social connections are the biggest predictor of how well we’ll cope. But, with the pandemic, our normal ways of connecting have been removed and there really is no substitute for the physical contact of sharing a space with someone. We’re also facing some unique challenges here in New Zealand, where 20% of our population was born overseas. That’s a lot of potential missed connections in the last 18 months.”
“Replenishment and refreshment are critical to sustain mental well-being".
Sarb admits that he is not immune, personally, from the global uncertainty surrounding the future of travel, business and social connection. “Last year was tricky for me, too. I worked too hard. I had so much on my plate and I treated it as an acute stressor that I just had to power through. But then I let it slip on too long and found my kids and my wife asking me to log off and spend more time with them. My eating habits were not good. I wasn’t exercising. There were a range of warning indicators.”
The solution for him, and for many, is to build some structure into our daily lives and shift those ‘nice-to-haves’ into ‘must-haves’. “I decided to look at what behaviours were going to protect me from doing the things I shouldn’t and encourage me to do the things I should. I thought about how much time I was spending in my head and how much more I wanted to spend in my body and connecting with the people in my life. I now start my day by writing and ensure I spend some time being mobile. Every day I stop at 3pm to go for a walk where I’ll listen to funny or interesting podcasts, or nothing at all. The objective is to stop the head noise and the problem-solving. I just want my senses to be energised and stimulated.”
Sarb’s biggest lessons in the last 2 or 3 years have come from writing for YouTube. “It really makes you think about what’s important and what people care about. You get really good feedback from the YouTube stats about exactly when people switch off from what you’re talking about and when they start to disengage. I’ve learned so much about how people like to get information and how they’ve used it in their lives. That’s what’s driven my focus toward ‘useful psychology’; how people can get the knowledge and understand it in such a way that they can change their lives to feature more of what they want to do and what is good for them.”
So what, exactly, is good for us? Sarb offers three key pieces of advice. “Don’t borrow against sleep so much. It’s your platform for mental well-being. If that platform is weak, everything else falls through. Also, make sure that you are scheduling time to do positive things that replenish and refresh you. And, lastly, try not to tie up your identity with one particular thing you do. That could be parenting or your job, for instance. Know your purpose, but spread your risk. When you were young, you probably had a diverse set of interests. What can you do to reconnect with them? Spreading your risk increases the potential sources of pleasure in your life.”
For those in high-pressure jobs – like architects and designers – Sarb’s advice is to work toward a state of flow. “We understand so much better now that mental health is not just an absence of mental illness but, rather, a behavioural practice that enables you to flourish. To find that flow, you first have to find focus. The key to that is to bring your arousal down. You have to really think about what you can do to slow your whole physiological and mental system down a notch. That’s where things like mindfulness and engaging your senses can really help.
“When the pandemic started, people who became really immersed in projects in a pleasurable way were the ones who moved into that flourishing space. To do this, you have to find new challenges, enjoyable experiences and meaningful work that overlaps with what it is that you find interesting. Try to find that work that really intersects with what brings you alive.”
To learn more about Sarb’s work visit https://sarbjohal.com/ and sign up for his newsletter to receive the latest news and updates.