How to look after your mental health at work

Mental health is not something we easily talk about, especially at work, where we might not really get along with our boss or colleagues or feel that all we would get is a lack of understanding, avoidance or isolation, and shame. And these are the exact same risks a person dealing with any form of mental illness is not willing to take, as the damage they produce can go as far as to trigger self-harm.

I just went through a mental health training session, held by Mental Health UK a few days back. I was surprised by how little we know about people going through mental illness, and mostly how important it is to keep, and train, our mental health. In this article, we will focus on how we can balance whatever it is that we do in our life so we can keep our mind healthy in the long run.

Mental illness

Even if we haven’t dealt with mental illness ourselves, we have a family member, a friend, a colleague, or a friend of a friend that has been through some form of mental illness. We’ve heard stories of people overcoming it or on the contrary, ending their lives as they couldn’t find a way out.

Still, when we talk about people that do go through this and are visibly showing behaviors that are not normal to them or the society they live in, we call them “crazy,” “lunatics,” “mental,” “psychic” or other negative words. We rarely stop and try to help them, as we would do with a person fainting or feeling physically unwell. Our mind, like any other part of our body, needs to be taken care of and might need proper help from time to time.

But there is so much negativity around these types of illnesses that people going through them will find it even harder to let their friends or colleagues know and ask for support. Mental illness can take so many forms and can disguise into so many different feelings, thoughts, and behaviors, that it is hard to spot them in somebody else.

Being aware of the unusual behavior of your friends and colleagues should trigger an alarm, and you should ask them more about what is going on. They might perceive this as an invitation to open up and get some of the support they so much need.

Anxiety and depression

Anxiety and depression are the two most common forms of mental illness people experience in their lives, and inevitably, they affect their performance in the workplace. They affect around 1 in 10 people, and anyone can get them at any age or moment in their lives, as the causes are diverse and often unpredictable.

Anxiety is a constant feeling of worry, fear, or nervousness, that goes on and on for more than six months. It is much more than just being worried about an exam or a presentation you have to do at some point. Anxiety prevents you from doing things out of fear to fail, miss something or just because you want to keep avoiding a particular lousy experience you once had. Anxiety will make it hard to keep up with your life, job, maintaining your relationships, trying out new things, or just enjoying activities that you used to enjoy.

Depression is a constant feeling of low-worthiness, low-energy, feeling sad, irritable, angry, losing interest in any activity, losing sleep or always sleeping; and in general, having thoughts that stop you from doing anything you previously enjoyed.

Wellbeing and keeping your mental health

Usually, developing a mental illness is the result of accumulating too much stress that causes an imbalance in your brain and leads to feeling unwell. I like the representation of this through the “stress bucket” model:

Our mind is a bucket, that can have a “relaxed” operating mode, with low levels of worry and stress, a “normal” stress level, that the mind can cope with, and anything above normal that is causing our brain to stretch. If worries such as dealing with change, financial issues, health worries, lack of sleep, job problems keep piling up, stress levels can reach up to a point they will overflow our mind.

Even if we cannot avoid such issues, and we will experience such stress in our day to day life, what matters is that we have the ways to “release” this stress out of our mind to keep the “normal” level of stress our brain can cope with. The primary forms through which we can release tension are through relaxation, talking to people we love and trust, by doing something we enjoy doing and by keeping proper time management.

All these contribute to a wellbeing plan we should develop for ourselves, in which we should be able to have a ready answer to the following questions:

  • What does wellbeing look like for you? What helps you relax, what do you enjoy doing, how would a perfect day look for you?
  • What keeps you well every day? Think routines, friends, activities.
  • What tools do you have to boost your wellbeing? What actions, or what people, are mood lifters for you, no matter what?
  • What are your early signs of stress levels going above the reasonable limit?
  • What are your triggers, and what can you do about them? Not necessarily in terms of avoiding these triggers, but how can you cope with them once they are present?
  • Who and where can you get support from?

This plan is meant to keep our mind in good shape. The way we know exercising is good for our body, a wellbeing plan is needed to keep good mental health.

Mental wellness in the workplace

People going through lighter or more severe mental health illnesses will have lower performance. They can damage the business more than contribute to its growth in the long term. That is why companies should consider developing a culture of support for these illnesses, and help their employees face and overcome such challenges.

Good company culture is, in my opinion, a culture that encourages its employees to keep the “stress bucket” levels healthy. This means that it should promote, through suitable means, that the increased stress level at work be compensated through the type of activities that help most individuals relieve the stress.

Employees, on the other hand, should feel they can be open about what they’re going through, knowing they will get support in the way they need it to be able to fight and win the struggles they face. This kind of support can be anything from just having someone to talk to at work, someone to help them rearrange their tasks, or even to get time off so they can deal with medical appointments or breaks to recover.

Mental illnesses are a result of the way we live in the modern world, where our brain is still not adapted to the comforts as well as the information overflow we experience now more than ever. Therefore, we as individuals should be proactive in our awareness and actions around maintaining our stress levels up to standard. Companies as well should add these culture elements and care for their employees’ minds as well as their bodies.