Managing your Mental Health in the Workplace
7 ways to look after yourself
In our ’24/7 always-on’ world, workplace stress has become almost the norm and over the last few years levels have been creeping up. In 2017/2018, 15.4 million working days were lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety, according to the Labour Force Survey.
Stress is a natural and necessary human response that helps motivate us to achieve our goals as well as enable us to act quickly in situations of danger. However, long term, high levels of stress are detrimental to our mental and physical health. At work it decreases focus, productivity and effectiveness. Relationships can become strained, with increased irritability and conflict. Furthermore, stress affects our sleep, appetite and energy levels leading to more frequent illness, heightened anxiety, depression and even burnout.
We can be stressed by so many different things, some of which we’re not even aware of.
There are obvious ones like work pressure, major life events, difficult relationships, finances, caring responsibilities and long-term health condition. Add to this other less obvious stressors like injury, illness, pregnancy and menopause. Then we have food sensitivities and poor diet, environmental toxins, lack of or even too much exercise, poor sleep, smoking and alcohol consumption. To cap this, life seems to continue increasing pace and complexity as technology makes it easier to do more in less time.
Our stressors can build up slowly until one day something happens and suddenly we can take no more. To prevent this happening it’s important for us (as well as our employers) to consider “how can I look after my mental health at work?”
Below I’ve outlined seven practical steps.
1. Create a climate of communication
You know the saying, a problem shared…If you aren’t coping, tell someone. Many of us tell others to ask for help, yet don’t do the same ourselves. Whether it’s an issue about workload or there’s something going on at home, ask for an adjustment or some flexibility in hours. (Read more about flexible working).
Complement colleagues for work done well; it will make you feel as good as them. Encouraging a collaborative and supportive working environment where people are appreciated can really help improve mental health at work. Don’t let disagreements fester, deal with conflicts straight away. (Learn more about how to deal with conflicts at work constructively).
2. Breathe Deeply
I cannot stress how beneficial this is for our mental and physical health! Most of us take shallow breaths into the top of our lungs, which in itself causes stress in the body. Take a few minutes a few times a day to focus on your breathing. Imagine your lungs as bellows and breathe slow and low into your side ribs. Make the exhale slightly longer than the inhale. If you feel dizzy it means you tend to chest breathe. Shorten the breath cycle and keep practicing, your lungs will get used to it and your mind and body will love you for it! This activates the ‘rest and digest’ nervous system, which reduces cortisol and heart rate, calms our body, improves focus and energy levels and helps to manage emotions.
What’s more, it’s simple, quick and free!
Try this technique too. Breathe in for 5, hold for 6 and out for 7. This increases circulation, uptake of oxygen and can aid getting to sleep. You could move on to learn mediation or mindfulness, both of which can focus on the breath or visualisation and have been scientifically proven to improve mental health within 3 months.
3. Look through a different lens
How do you look at the world? Are you a worrier or do you tend to look at the negative rather than the positive? What we focus on is what we tend to get, so pay attention to the language you use to yourself, about others and about situations. Saying I’m so stressed or anxious and being worried actually sets off the stress response in our body. The more our stress response is activated, the less able our body is able to regulate it – hence we just keep getting more stressed! When faced with challenges, practice thinking about what you can do, what one thing will help make some improvement. Practicing gratitude or journaling is a great way to cultivate a more optimistic perspective.
4. Avoid unhealthy habits, create new improved ones and get more Zzz’s
Increasing research shows our lifestyle has considerable effect on our stress levels and mental health. Lack of sleep is a major contributor, indeed it can easily become a vicious cycle as the one affects the other. It makes us irritable, upsets our metabolism and makes us more accident-prone. Improve your sleep quality by aiming for 7-9 hours a night in a dark well-ventilated room and turn of all electronics at least 30 minutes before sleeping, keeping your phone away from your bed. Check out our blog post on why sleep should be a wellbeing focus in your organisation.
5. Focus on your food and drink
When overstretched and stressed it’s easy to turn to highly processed, sugary foods, caffeine and alcohol for an instant ‘fix’. The resulting insulin and energy spikes and crashes lead to mood swings and gut problems, which stress the body. Improving your diet to include plenty of vegetables and unprocessed foods and drinking water throughout the day will bring improved energy levels, alertness and mental well being.
6. Move more
Sitting still in front of a screen for long periods can sap our energy and ability to focus plus it decreases circulation, slowing waste removal. So take every opportunity to move regularly by using the stairs, going over to talk to a colleague, taking breaks to stretch and having a walk at lunchtime.
7. Bring balance with biophilia
Electronic equipment, man-made fabrics, lack of natural light and air-conditioning create a working environment high in positive ions that can make us tired and feel down. Plants are one way to balance out the air in the office. Increasing the number of natural materials, being able to open windows and have some personal space also helps improve the way people feel at work.
Discover other great working habits in our working from home guide.
There’s a huge business case for creating healthy working environments that both educate and support staff in having good mental health. Leaders and managers play a vital role in leading by example and encouraging open communication about mental health too.
Practical courses to support staff
EW Group runs two practical courses Mental Health Awareness Training and Workplace Wellbeing for Managers that will support your company or organisation make positive changes to support staff with their mental health.
The importance of wellbeing in the modern workplace cannot be underestimated. So how can businesses make the structural and cultural changes necessary to entrench wellbeing as a core company principle? Listen to our wellbeing episode with Vix Anderton to find out more.
Rachael is joined by a good friend of EW Group, Ruth Cooper-Dickson, to discuss how to remove the fear of saying no. Ruth also shares her practical tips on how to create more time for yourself despite having a hectic work schedule. Listen here for 5-point wellbeing plan.