30th May 2017
Last month I was fortunate enough to attend a Mental Health First Aid lite course delivered
by Kevin Moore of Future Path. The aim of the course is to empower individuals and
communities to understand the signs and symptoms of mental health issues and how best
to support themselves and those around them. My place there was generously funded by
ERSA who are the representative body for the employment support sector and exist to
help its members achieve their shared goal: to help people gain sustainable employment
and to progress in work.
At this point it would be useful to point out that out of around 100 new in-work clients a
month, around 5% have direct mental health needs, and many more quote mental health
needs as a secondary condition.
With mental health being such a broad topic, for this discussion I thought it best to focus
on something that is equally relevant to all individuals and can hold particular value to our
clients: mental and emotional wellbeing. And in the spirit of all things Genius Within, I am
going to hone in on a particularly useful exercise in self-awareness.
Enter the question. ‘How is your bucket?’ Seems odd, but encouraging our clients to ask
themselves this question regularly throughout the day can really be the start of a journey of
self awareness that can change the way they relate to themselves and manage their
So what is this bucket all about? Well, the bucket is an analogy for our capacity to ‘hold’
stress every day. Let’s assume that when we wake in the morning our bucket is filled with
a certain amount of water, and as the day progresses and ‘stressful’ events occur, i.e.
delayed train, alarm doesn't go off, tight deadline, argument with a partner, etc. the bucket
gets filled more and more. However, nothing too stressful happens for the rest of the day.
By the time we get home, have a nice cup of tea with our feet up, watch some tv, our
bucket is looking quite empty and eventually by the time our head hits the pillow we fall
into a deep sleep with no water in our bucket. Not so bad, nothing too terrible there?
Well, the problem with individuals who experience mental health difficulties, or those
individuals who are neurodiverse means that just trying to deal with their own challenges is
stressful enough and this stress is filling up their buckets all day long. In fact, for many,
their natural natural stress level or ‘water set-point’ may well be half way up the bucket or
even 90% full by the time we meet them. This means that ‘normal’ every day work
challenges like pressure, targets, work overload, being watched can be enough to cause
‘spillages’ on a regular basis. These spillages can be highly detrimental to their work life
and is something we would want to minimise. Having an awareness of ones natural set-
point, triggers, bucket-fillers and the things that help empty their bucket can really help
individuals feel more in control and take steps to become more effective at work. It
becomes even more crucial for them to integrate a level of self-awareness.
At this point it is important to note that stress can also be used as a positive source of
motivation helping people to feel focused or even excited. However, it is the ‘overflowing’
of the bucket, or the the feeling of being emotionally overwhelmed which is to be avoided
as this is where things can go wrong.
So how can one get to know their bucket? Here are some useful questions to ask which
can be used as a reflective exercise:
Q. How do you know when your bucket is full/empty?
Q. Do you wake up in the morning with your bucket empty? Or is it already full?
Q. Do you know what fills/empties your bucket?
Q. What are helpful strategies for emptying your bucket? What have you done in the past
to empty your bucket? What hasn’t worked so well in emptying your bucket?
Q. What do you notice when your bucket is full? How do you behave? How does your
body feel? What is your mind doing? Can you challenge these thoughts and choose a
different course of action? What are the possible alternative outcomes?
So how can using the bucket analogy help clients? The principal that stands out the most
from this exercise is the level of self-awareness that it promotes. Self awareness is the first
step to creating change. Sometimes all it takes is one ‘ah-ha!’ moment and we’re on a
whole new path. This new found self awareness can be applied to planning tasks at work,
ask your client; ‘what tasks or jobs require a lot of emotional energy and are likely to fill up
your bucket? These tasks are better off being done when your bucket is near enough
empty – or perhaps try emptying your cup just before and after you do the task?
Clients can hope to see fewer incidents where their cup is overflowing, fewer ‘spilllages’
feeling emotionally overwhelmed, making mistakes, confrontations with colleagues, fewer
tears,etc. Encouraging clients to keep their buckets well maintained, and learning to keep
it as empty as possible should really support their processing and cognitive skills which
can expect to result in a greater flow to positive work outcomes. Emotional self-awareness,
or a well maintained bucket really does have the power to pave the way to increased
enjoyment of work, self-esteem and is an an essential building block to a fulfilling working
and personal life.