Community Management and Mental Health

Last night during a panel discussion to a NYC startup group, one of the attendees posed a question: “How can we propser during the COVID pandemic”.

It’s a question we’re all wrestling with right now, both personally and professionally. Each of my co-panelists had interesting takes on the question. But part of my own answer was that we have to face the reality that there is no “single pandemic”. The pandemic is a a phased, evolving, ongoing “process”. Where we were in March is not where we were in July is not where we are in October. And it won’t be the same in January. Or next March. And likely this time next year… because it’s going to be a while before we’re “done” with this damn thing.

I say this because of the virus itself… it’s not under control, and COVID continues to evolve physically. And the politics have evolved constantly. We’ve watched while the very idea of wearing a mask has been turned into a political football. We’ve watched the way cases are tracked, reported, and considered turned into a pundit-debated political theme. We’ve heard case numbers (50,000 new cases per day in America vs 2500 per day in America) get explained away until numbers have no meaning.

But it’s also a function of normal human social dynamics. Humans tend to come together better at the start of any crisis than in the middle and certainly after a period of time as it gets normalized.

In March, as we were unsure, scared, lost, we rallied in spite of our clueless leaders. We saw actors step up and post banana bread ingredient swaps and start hilarious feel good podcasts. Companies who made couches shifted their production to make masks.

But as the months grinded on, especially without a cohesive, binding, centralized Federal leadership, people started cracking. The country started getting more divisive. More tribal than we were before… which is saying a lot. The election politics drove this, but more than that, our cabin fever just grated on us.

And now… we’re all pretty short tempered. We all seem to be pretending to be back to “normal” and just ignoring the fact that we’re all struggling to deal. Vacations aren’t as accessible, kids and parents are around each other a lot more than normal (or healthy), every decision about where to go and who to spend time with seems more tricky and fraught with danger. Hell, even the CDC reported today that “household gatherings” may be at the heart of the spike in cases we’re seeing in America right now. <insert gif image of frustrated Sheldon throwing papers in the air and walking out of the room… I’m too frustrated to even go find it and embed it>

Or at least that’s my hot take.

But this is a pretty natural human progression:

  1. CONNECTION: Band together arm in arm
  2. VENTING: Get tired and drift apart
  3. EXORCISING DEMONS: When we can’t handle the stress, we snap

And as today’s Home Game Comic reminds us, communities have all three of those issues too. And not always in that tidy linear progression. Mostly our Community Professionals are dealing with all three of those at once during the course of their work day.

Why?

Because every individual community member is on their own individual journey. And unlike the Global COVID Pandemic that basically started on the same day for all of us, community members start their journey on random days. So they experience the journey differently person to person.

This makes community management uniquely difficult, and I’m not sure that most people fully appreciate that mind screw that can have on Community Managers and Moderators.

Think about your own COVID journey from March through today. There’s been a lot of ups and downs, twists and turns. It’s been an emotional roller coaster, right?

Now consider going through a microcosm of that journey every day you come to work. Look at the comic above and imagine (or if you’re a community manager reading this, recognize/accept/appreciate) for a minute the experience of having all three of those experiences all day, every day, day after day.

There’s a reason that Facebook agreed to pay $52 million to their moderators who can prove a PTSD diagnosis. (A laughably paltry sum, if you ask me… given the number of moderators at Facebook, the one-time amount that that breaks down to per moderator, and the absolutely chilling amount of horridness they are/have been subjected to…)

As Community Professionals, we know all this to be true. But we often aren’t giving ourselves the self-care we need. In the panel last night, my friend Angelica Coleman was hitting this point hard and it really struck me how … odd (?) it felt to be talking about self-care for Community Professionals. We’re all so used to working with small staffs, low budgets, minimal understanding from peers, long hours…. all of it. It’s just how we do. But that’s not OK. And I’ve heard from countless community teams during the pandemic that the work has ticked WAY up but the staffing, support, outside consulting resources, etc. have remained the same. Or in many cases been reduced.

It’s really exciting that the pandemic has been a shot in the arm for the online community industry. It has opened the eyes of many of our colleagues and bosses and executives to the power of community. This is great! Community is finally getting its due!

But it’s imperative that in this moment of attention that we don’t just use that attention to get bigger budgets and more attention to our projects. We must couple this new found respect and attention with a demand for mental and physical health as well. So many of us were already overworked and underfunded.

Let’s use this moment as leverage to attend to our needs, not to shove them aside in the rush once again put the corporate needs first.

I’d encourage all of us Community Professional to read up and really consider the Caregiver’s Dilemma. Because I believe it absolutely applies to our profession.

Essentially, what you have to decide and reconcile is your love for yourself with the love for your caree. They are not mutually exclusive. To love and care for another comes from first doing the same for yourself. You may feel that if you take those all-important steps in attending to your own needs, you abandon the caree. The only real way to sustainably help the person you care about is to make sure your help emanates from a place of strength, a solid foundation of self-love, self-attention, and self-care.

Take care of yourselves, my friends! You deserve it! Your communities will be better for it!


Amusingly I didn’t realize this was Mental Illness Awareness Week. This post was well timed!