Our mental health doesn’t stop being important when we arrive at our workplace. Work can help our mental health, but it can also cause additional stress which can negatively impact our mood. Proactively managing our mental health both in and outside of the workplace can help us to cope.
If our basic needs aren’t met then we’re going to struggle, no matter how many other interventions we implement.
Whatever our shift pattern we need to try and get enough sleep. We need to be eating a variety of foods regularly. When we’re stressed, our body will naturally crave fat and sugar, but if living off chocolate and crisps will leave us feeling pretty naff pretty quickly.
It’s easy to forget to drink water or to live off coffee and other caffeinated drinks. Caffeine is a diuretic so it isn’t very good at hydrating us. Carrying a bottle of water that we keep topped up can help us to ensure that we’re drinking enough.
Stopping and starting medications can mean that we end up having withdrawal and ‘intiial’ effects on repeat which can leave us feeling incredibly poorly. It’s important to take our medication as prescribed, every day, and to speak to a healthcare professional if we have any problems with it.
The Environment We Work In
In some jobs, we have little control over our work environment. In others, we do have some control over parts of our environment such as our office or desk.
Lowering the lighting, having the radio on in the background (or not!), and turning our screen brightness down can make a huge difference to how we feel. If allowed, we could have positive quotes or images as our computer background, around the edge of our computer, on the wall or in a break room. Sometimes it’s a nice idea to pop some positive affirmations around the mirrors in our work bathrooms because other people might find them helpful, too!
For some of us, the clearer our desk the clearer our head. It’s worth considering whether there’s any clutter on our desk or in our workspace that’s adding to our stress.
We might not be able to make many changes in our general work environment but could do things in our personal environment. For example, we could wear headphones (provided it’s allowed) or wear glasses with a blue light filter or a dark tint to lower our sensory input.
Workplaces are varied – some people have desks, others have trucks, wards, sites, or green rooms. Noting how our environment affects us allows us to make changes or tweaks that help.
Look At Your Hours
Flexitime is increasingly becoming part of workplace culture. Whether we have total autonomy over when we work, or a little bit of flexitime built into our contract, learning the times when we naturally work best can help to reduce our workplace stress.
Some of us are more productive in the morning. Others of us, may hit our stride in the evening. Honouring that, and working accordingly, allows us to be more productive and to feel less as though we’re constantly trying to force our brain to do its thing.
Some jobs require us to work in shifts. Shift work can be hard because it doesn’t always follow a set routine and might involve some nights. If we find that it’s beginning to take its toll then it’s worth speaking to our manager. There might be an option to make our shifts the same each week or to reduce the number of night shifts we do.
Depending on finances, working part-time might be an option. This can help us to improve our work-life balance. Depression, or other mental illnesses, can be full-time jobs in themselves. Working part-time gives us a little more time to do what we need to do to keep our mental health stable.
Boundaries are something we witter on about a lot. The reason we can’t stop talking about them is that they’re important.
With emails available all over the world, and remote working becoming increasingly common, it can be harder and harder to switch off.
Removing work emails and apps from our personal phones helps to put some distance between home at work. We could also try having one consistent place for work. Somewhere we only go when working, whether it’s a dedicated room or a particular chair in the kitchen.
Many of us regularly work over our contracted hours. It’s a tricky one because struggling to fit our work into our hours is stressful, but equally, routinely working over our hours is stressful, too. If we’re in this position, we could try speaking to our line manager to see if there’s any flexibility in our workload or hours.
Working From Home
An ever-increasing number of us work from home, either all or some of the time.
It can have its advantages. For example, it allows us a greater level of control over our environment. We can make our coping tools readily available to us for times when work gets tough, whether it be a hug with a sympathetic pet, or we sit wrapped in a weighted blanket.
However, it can also have its problems. One of the biggest problems with working from home is that it can be quite isolating. As much as getting up, dressed, and going into work isn’t always something we’re excited to do, it does get us out of the house. When working from home it can be easy to go days without speaking to another person. Slipping into a string of pyjama days, and a squiffy sleep routine can happen almost without us noticing. It might not be long before we start staying in the house for a week or more at a time.
We need to be aware of our habits, and our levels of isolation, especially if we don’t have things to force us out of the house such as dog-walks or school-runs. Having rules works for some people. These rules could include things like getting dressed every workday, walking around the block during each lunch hour, or contacting a friend or family member most days.
Hobbies, sport, or volunteering roles can help to give us a change of scenery. Even if we’re quite happy in our own company, we can begin to feel lonely if we spend all our time alone.
Routine… Or Not
Some of us love routine. It can provide an element of predictability and control in an otherwise unpredictable and chaotic world. We might work best in more structured environments. Jobs where our hours are the same each week and the tasks and timings of meetings or sessions are fairly regular usually suit us best.
For others, routine drags us down. It feels stifling and restricting. In these cases, a job with more flexible hours, or to do shift work might suit us better.
Organisation At Work
Organisation is often challenging when we’re unwell because having poor mental health can affect our executive functioning. Motivation, concentration, time-management, focus, memory, flexibility, and multitasking all come under ‘executive functions’.
Diaries, planners, apps, lists, notifications and pop-up reminders can keep us on track. Breaking large tasks into smaller chunks can help them to be more manageable. Sitting down at the beginning of the week and drawing up an activity planner can help us to prioritise our tasks, spread them out over the week, and gives us something solid to refer back to.
Self-Soothing At Work
Though self-soothing is perhaps a little easier to do in our home environment, we can still bring it to our workplace.
It might be that we can have a blanket or weighted lap pad at our desk. We could choose to wear comfy clothes; things like a big jumper can be a great blanket replacement if we don’t want to carry a blanket around with us.
Listening to certain sounds, from music or meditations can be calming. If we’re allowed to wear headphones at work, this can help us to zone out of our environment and into our work.
Warm drinks can comfort us, almost like an internal hug. Standing up, stretching and going to make a drink, can give us a short break which allows us to breathe, too.
Sometimes everything feels a little bit too much. We can feel it bubbling up inside of us until we almost feel trapped. In most jobs, we can take five minutes to breathe, even if it means popping to the toilet.
If possible, standing with our feet shoulder-width apart and our hands (and possibly head) on a wall can help to ground us.
Pacing our breathing can help us to bring down our anxiety levels. We could do it as part of grounding ourselves, but because it’s quite discreet we can do it in the office or in the middle of a meeting and it’s likely that nobody would know.
Tracking our stressors means taking note of anything that regularly causes us stress. As well as noting stressors we can immediately identify, it can help to also keep a record of our mood and notice how it fluctuates in response to the world around us.
Being aware of our stressors allows us to do something about them. The fewer things we have niggling at us, the lower our overall stress and anxiety levels should be.
We all have problems, big and small. Sometimes they’re little niggles and sometimes they’re massive issues that we haven’t got a clue how to tackle.
Rather than letting these problems linger on, tackling them, and looking at how we can problem-solve our way to solutions can help to stop them from weighing on us so heavily.
Solution A might not work, solution B might not either, but if we keep trying to look at our problems in a solution-focused manner, either alone or with some help, then eventually we should find a solution that works for us.
Our thoughts and feelings aren’t facts. For many of us, when our mental health isn’t so good, we have a lot of negative, possibly intrusive, thoughts. We might start to think things like: our colleagues don’t like us, we’re rubbish at our job, we’re a failure, we should have been fired and other negative things.
These thoughts can quickly spiral, undermining our confidence and in some cases, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It can be helpful to fact-check some of our thoughts and feelings. Do our colleagues really not like us, or is one of them having a bad day today and being a bit snappy? Are we really rubbish at our job, or have we had a couple of negative pieces of feedback amongst a pile of positive bits? Can we really not do our work, or are we having a bit of a foggy-brain day?
Questioning, rather than accepting these thoughts can help us to stop them from spiralling quite so much.
Fiddley things can release low-level anxiety without distracting us from our work, helping us concentrate. Spinner rings can be discrete. Stress balls, tangles, a smooth stone, wooden blocks, or even lumps of blue tack can all be good fiddle tools.
We need to take our breaks and annual leave. Many of us aren’t particularly good at it. We might feel undeserving, or as though we have too much to do. If we’ve had to take sick leave then we might start to think that we should work through our annual leave (which isn’t true!). Breaks and annual leave exist for a reason.
For some of us, when not at work, taking time away from screens is a priority. This can be particularly important if our job requires us to spend the majority of our day in front of a computer.
Spending time in nature can help to refresh us. Whether we’re able to climb a hill, paddle in the shallows of a beach, or open a window, a little bit of fresh air can work wonders.
If exercise is something that we can safely do, it can work wonders for our mental health. We could do anything from a gentle wander in our local park, to a high-intensity training session or three.
However we like to spend our time off, whether it’s curling up with a book or entering into a heated game of monopoly, we must have a break from our work. Our brain needs rest – it’s a muscle just like the other muscles in our body.
Let It Out
Life can be stressful. Work adds to this for many of us. We all need an outlet.
Whether we’re someone who releases our tension through talking it over with friends and family, dancing it out, running or splodging paint, finding an outlet that works for us can help us to bring our anxiety and stress levels down.
Some people find a ‘Wellness Recovery Action Plan’, or ‘WRAP’ helpful. This is a document where we compile a list of things that help us, don’t help us, and the actions we’d like people to take if we become unwell.
This might include things like emergency contact numbers, any medications that help us, and our wishes around hospital admissions.
We might have a colleague or manager who we’re comfortable enough to share our WRAP with. Alternatively, we might choose to keep it in a sealed envelope, but let someone in our workplace know where it is should they ever need to access it on our behalf.
These plans are particularly helpful if we have an illness that can ‘turn’ very quickly. They allow our wishes to be heard even if we’re not well enough to advocate for ourselves.
Know Your Rights At Work
Unfortunately, some workplaces aren’t as good as others when implementing reasonable adjustments.
Sometimes we need to know our rights, and the laws surrounding equality and diversity to fight our corner. This can be a stressful undertaking so we might choose to get a union or advocate involved.
People Who Can Help
There are all sorts of different people who can help us when it comes to managing our mental health at work.
Our manager might be able to help us adjust and manage our tasks or shift patterns. They may also be able to help if we’re struggling with the amount of work we have, the type of work, or any other workplace niggles.
There might be other agencies within our workplace that can help us such as an HR (Human Resources) department. OT (Occupational Therapy) provision exists to advise on any reasonable adjustments that could be made as part of our job to help us manage. In many jobs, they also ensure that we’re well enough to work. Some workplaces have disability advisors or specific staff who lead on disability and/or mental health. They’re often good people to speak to about any issues we’re having as they’re usually very understanding and might have ideas that we’ve not thought of.
Ask For The Support You’re Entitled To
We’re entitled to the support and reasonable adjustments we need to manage our job to the best of our ability. Asking for the things we need to help us manage our mental health is no different from a wheelchair user asking for a ramp to get into the office. We’re not being needy or ‘a pain’, we’re proactively managing our mental health.
Please help us to help others and share this post, you never know who might need it.