This article is part of Hive’s weeklong Mental Health at Work initiative, where we talk about mental health at work, productivity, and how to improve work/life balance. For this tentpole piece, we sat down with Vera Papisova, current director of content and education at arfa, former Teen Vogue wellness editor and mental health advocate, to talk about her wellness journey.
Michaela Rollings, Content Marketing Manager at Hive: I’m a big proponent of like talking about mental health at work and talking about the stress and anxiety that no one really talks about. I find that a little bit strange. Personally, I struggle a lot with anxiety and have been trying to balance productivity and mental health. I feel like you’ve got that down.
Vera Papisova: It all started when I was younger, there were never any taboos or stigmas in my home. My dad is a neuroscientist and kind of trained me, and I’m super empathetic, so as I got older, I could tell what people were uncomfortable talking about. I started realizing that everyone carries these psychological injuries and scars. And no one had access to information that could help them better understand themselves or even know they were carrying these things around. So I became really passionate about helping people get access to whatever information they need for healing. And I think that it’s really important for everyone to have access to whatever they need to heal because that’s how we start to thrive.
Michaela: Tell us about your time at Teen Vogue.
Vera: When I started working there, I definitely wasn’t prepared for how high stress and how abusive working on the news cycle is. I was really taken aback by how devastating it is psychologically to be a news reporter. Plus, you’re reaching so many people with what is often bad news, and I never understood why the media hasn’t always provided more tools on how to cope with all of this shit that’s going on.
When we already know violence and trauma is happening, and we already know trauma has been experienced, the absolute wrong reaction is to try to erase it by pretending it doesn’t exist. There are people who read the news and try to convince themselves it’s not true, and that erases people’s experiences. So what we have to do is we have to be thoughtful and empathetic about how we, the observers of tragedy, react. That’s the way I approached the Teen Vogue wellness section — really thinking about providing the proper resources and empathetic reactions that people are not getting at school or from people around them.
Michaela: And how did you deal with that mentally day-to-day? What do you think is the solution for someone who’s in a field like that?
Vera: I think, ideally, we need to move towards a future where there is a sort of “guidance counselor” in every office. I think we need to make mental health visible and prioritize it in a way that’s not forcing anyone to talk, and you’re not exploiting anyone’s experience, but you’re just saying, “Hey, we think this is important, and you can talk about it with us if you want.” So I think having someone on staff whose job it is to help people manage their emotions at work is the way of the future. It’s something I really want for everyone.
I also don’t think it’s fair to expect people to be advocates all the time. I’m a really big believer in people protecting themselves, and not having to talk about things if they don’t want to. So I don’t think “full disclosure” should be the standard. Someone shouldn’t have to disclose what they’ve been through in order to get the help or support that they need. I think that help and support should just be there by default as part of the structure.
And I think empathy is a big thing, and it is really important to foster at work. Also, emotional contagion is real, and people don’t know that. That is a real term that psychologists use, which basically means that if you can’t manage your emotions properly, your feelings and emotions and anxiety can really become contagious and affect everyone else, especially in a place like the office.
And so when people talk about “vibes” and “energy,” what they’re actually talking about is emotional contagion. And if we’re talking about creating and fostering the most productive work environment, it has to be an emotionally healthy and positive one, so that people aren’t wasting their energy coping with toxic emotions around them. Plus, if you eliminate the toxic emotions and make emotional health part of your work culture, you start to respect people’s boundaries, which helps everyone better manage stress.
Imagine this: You’re so stressed, feel so behind, and instead of being punished for not being able to deal with it, there was someone on staff whose job it was to help you emotionally reset. We would all waste so much less energy if the environment was emotionally positive and uplifting. We’d be way more productive.
I also think we should be educating people on emotion contagion. Ideally, I’d like us to learn more about stress and mental health earlier so that we’re not learning it so late in the game.
Michaela: Do you have any specific examples of how to implement these strategies in a work environment? I know it’s really hard to talk about these kinds of things.
Vera: A good practice would be to normalize being open about your mood — not necessarily disclosing why, but at least being open about and asking how other people are feeling.
So instead of feeling like, “Oh, well this person’s being weird towards me, I wonder if they’re mad at me for something. Did I do something wrong?” You would know, no, this person’s just having a bad day. And it has nothing to do with me.
If you implement culture like this, which encourages a healthy emotional space, you are wasting the least amount of emotional energy, which gives people more space and energy to be productive. And if you support people emotionally, then they will give you the best possible work. Part of thriving and part of creating a work environment that supports people to thrive is creating a work environment that acknowledges that emotions affect your work.
And I think that as someone who has anxiety — I have an anxiety disorder and I also have ADHD — means holding myself accountable because, just because I have anxiety doesn’t mean that I get a free pass to treat everybody badly one day. What it means is that I have to work extra hard to make sure I’m being mindful of everyone’s boundaries when I’m at work. So I think it’s not just company accountability, but individual people taking accountability.
Michaela: I also want to talk briefly Instagram and how you use that as a tool. You talk about mental health in every facet of life, and you even have a list of therapists in your bio, which is really interesting and cool. I always try to sell my therapist to other people.
Vera: The biggest privilege from my job at Teen Vogue was that I got to learn so much, directly, from the people who shared their stories with us and the world’s leading experts. I got to learn so much about different kinds of trauma because while my title was “wellness editor,” I feel like my real title was trauma editor. I learned a lot from all of my writers, both how to be a better editor to them, and also just seeing how they grew from their experiences, which were not experiences that I had personally. One of the other key things I learned about and became really passionate about was how social media affects our mental health, because young people consume everything on social media.
There’s a lot of back and forth about social media being “bad,” and there are all of those headlines about it being “harmful.” But at this point we know that social media is actually a neutral tool and whether it has a positive or negative effect depends on who’s using it and how. I remember a campaign that Instagram did all about kind comments and anti-cyber bullying, and it mentioned that if you have one negative comment, a person’s going to read that on average a hundred times. And every time a person reads one comment it’s like they’re reading it for the first time, so one negative comment online has the emotional effect of a hundred negative comments in person.
So that makes cyber bullying and cyber harassment way more traumatic than verbal abuse that might happen in real life once. And I obviously can’t control the people using social media — trolls are everywhere — but I do create and curate my own social media based on what makes me feel good and what educates me.
One other great thing I started doing was a social media feed detox, which is just deleting or unfollowing people who make you feel bad about yourself. That person might be a great person, but if they’re making you insecure, you’re not helping yourself by constantly exposing yourself to them and by default, your insecurity. I remove whatever doesn’t serve my growth. I always tell people if I ever make you feel bad, whether it’s because of how I look or how I dress or where I live or what my job is, it’s okay if like you need to unfollow me. I’m not going to take it personally. And I understand because there are people like that for me — people who are not bad people, but they make me feel bad when I look at their Instagram. Or there are people who actually do have a lot of negative energy in their Instagram and on their social media in general, and they’re OK to unfollow too! I also just want to create a safe space on Instagram, and after I left Teen Vogue, I saw my Instagram community as an opportunity to help people heal.
Michaela: Instagram is interesting. I like Instagram, but I don’t use Instagram enough for it to be super taxing on me. I use it to talk about things things I love, like makeup and music, so that’s my creative outlet for those things. And I don’t really care if it’s beneficial for other people, because I post and share things for myself.
Vera: Yes, definitely. And for me, Instagram is also about doing what helps me. By being transparent about my own emotional processes, it helps me to heal. And I think healing is also contagious — if something’s healing for one person that can create contagion, just like if something is abusive or negative, that can create contagion. And so my Instagram is something that is healing for me, but has a secondary goal of healing others.
But I still have a lot of boundaries, and I still am pretty selective about answering certain questions and giving advice. I’m selective about what I choose to start talking about on social media because there’s a lot of time and effort that goes into it. But if it’s something that I can relate to, or if it’s something that I’m going to learn from, then it benefits me to do it. Boundaries are still so important, though — you can’t be a good teacher if you don’t have actual boundaries that you hold yourself accountable for.
So I think a lot of what I’ve learned, a big part of my own learning experience on Instagram, has been creating boundaries, not just in interpersonally with friends and people in my real life, but really figuring out what are my boundaries on social media so that it’s never draining me to use it and that it’s only ever a place that gives me energy. If you feel like your audience is draining you, then you need to reevaluate what your boundaries are with your audience, because your audience is a reflection of you. And I really love all of the followers I have because a lot of them are experts and they have found their way to me because I post a lot of stuff that they’re interested in too. And then I get to know their work, and they become part of the conversation.
I wanted to go back and say one more thing about office and work environment. I think everyone wants to get their money’s worth out of an employee when they hire them. And so I think employers need to really recognize that happy people are the most productive people. Also, everyone is different, and everyone has a slightly different schedule that is the most effective for them. It’s so important to be aware of everyone’s unique working styles, and to create an environment that allows for anyone to thrive.
Also, certain jobs are very emotionally or physically exhausting. When I was covering the news at Teen Vogue, it was probably the hardest experience I’ve ever had, emotionally, in my entire career. And what helped me the most was really focusing on my body and figuring out what’s going to make my body feel good. I was burning out and I was really tired, and I needed to find a way to refuel and replenish.
What helped me a lot was realizing that I love exercise and finding some kind of physical movement. Focusing on what kind of fuel I’m putting in my body, and learning about the physical effects of stress and how cortisol affects the body. Obviously, if you’re in a stressful work environment you can’t control how people around you are behaving, but it’s really helpful to be physically aware of the tax it’s putting on you. No matter what your job is, thinking about recovery for your body is crucial, and I started to apply what I learned from growing up as an athlete.
Michaela: How do you think all wraps up — how do you think employers should be behaving towards people who are asking for help or setting boundaries.
Vera: Employers should not be scared of someone who might be more traumatized and someone who might need more support. It’s up to the individual to manage themselves at your company, but that person also has the potential to be your star employee if given the right resources and opportunities. People who have gone through trauma are much stronger than people who haven’t. So just imagine their limitless potential if we just gave them the resources and the space to heal.