Red, green… Reflect

Lubos Michalic
Oct 13 · 4 min read
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“I am not okay…” — began my cry out for help on a Friday, after a restless night, due to an anxiety-inducing NY Times article about Elmhurst hospital. A hospital, which I walked by daily, a hospital where I got stitches after smashing my forehead in 8th grade, and the very same hospital my sister has worked at for the past two decades. COVID-19’s epicenter had shifted from Italy, across the pond to my old stomping ground, New York City.

With the (remote) workday ahead of me, I struggled to communicate how I was feeling to my team in words remotely. With 90% of communication being non-verbal, the usual body language cues are more easily missed working remotely. I had found it hard to express how I was feeling on occasions before and longed for a way to make it okay to do so in a casual way.

That Friday morning, I slacked my team lead, requesting that our team of five software engineers trial a tool — ‘Traffic light’ check-in. I picked up the Traffic light check-in at Makers Academy, an emotionally and mentally intense 12-week coding Boot camp, from Maker’s own CJO (Chief Joy Officer), Dana Svoboda. We used the traffic lights during the daily meditation sessions to check in how we were doing that day.

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Dana at Makers during a meditation check-in

The tool is quite simple yet very powerful. To express our approximate state of mental health and wellness, we’d use three simple colors — red, amber, and green.

  • Red means feeling overwhelmed, struggling, and just generally having a difficult time.
  • Amber means things are a bit tough, but I’m okay to carry on.
  • Green means it’s all smooth sailing.

Following the statement of the color, you could expand on why you picked the shade, with a short explanation, like “I’m not feeling the best as the heat last night meant I didn’t get a whole lot of sleep”, or we could also state the color and leave it there. There was no pressure to address anyone’s state of mind, only to acknowledge it and build awareness of the cohort’s well-being. In turn, this exercise allowed for a safe space to express mental health and nurtured the psychological safety among my peers.

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Trialing the ‘Traffic light’ check-in at Redgate

My team agreed to trial the system starting the following week. I could feel the weight come off my shoulders daily, as I shared in a sentence or less about how I felt. “A problem shared is a problem halved,” as the saying goes. The simple act of sharing that I was feeling red had at times made my worrying head less worried about the fact that I was feeling worried (because that’s what it does, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯). While some of the situations weren’t solvable, just talking about it made the problems seem a bit smaller and bearable. The following six months with the turbulence since, the traffic light system would be tested quite extensively.

In June, the worry peaked as my friends participated in Black Lives Matter protests in the US. With the team’s awareness and support, I could get through several red days till things eased up.

On the other hand, in July, I became withdrawn and feeling amber for several days, without knowing what was wrong. When asked about my orange streak, I had to do some introspection to figure out what was up, as I, myself, wasn’t being honest with things that were having an impact on me.

In August, my team were dispersed doing a company wide week long hackathon, Down Tools Week, and stopped doing the daily check-ins for this week which turned into 2–3 weeks afterwards. I unexpectedly found myself really missing these check-ins, and so I took the initiative to reinstate them.

Throughout the whole time, anytime a teammate was having a difficult day, I was able to give an ear to hear what was happening if they wished to speak about it. It also helped my team lead become aware of the overview of the well-being of their team.

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Reflections

For many people, the last six months have been a roller-coaster of emotions during this pandemic. The traffic light system is one of the many tools in a tool kit I use to look after my mental health. However, it is critical to bring awareness to my team and more importantly, myself. Armed with that awareness, I can choose the right tools to help manage my mental health and I feel psychologically safe doing so, knowing my team has got my back.

I’m far from telling anyone what to do. If you feel psychologically safe enough with your team and you’re up for experimenting, ‘Traffic Light’ system could be a great tool to raise awareness of your team’s well-being and a way to connect with your teammates.

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