Improving your mental health in the workplace
Updated: Oct 23, 2019
By Dr Liza Chervonsky, Clinical Psychologist
Inlight Psychology, Bondi Junction
Imagine a timeline of your life. Draw it out from 20 to 65 years old. Now picture this: half your waking life will likely be spent working and travelling to and from work, and for some of you this may be a significant underestimate. When you were at school, you were likely fed the message that you need to learn to work hard to succeed in life. When you started your first job, you were likely told to put in extra hours. Even when you moved up the ranks and felt like you weren’t the new one anymore, you probably still felt the pressure of working hard and working late. This in itself isn’t necessarily bad, as long as you really do enjoy your work. But what if you don’t? What if at work you feel tired, overworked, burnt out, disconnected, unmotivated, unworthy, lonely, sad, stressed or anxious? See, we’re taught to work hard. That’s a lesson that began in childhood. But we aren’t taught how to ensure that our mental wellbeing doesn’t suffer along the way.
Outlined below are a number of factors to consider when reviewing your own mental health in the workplace. You are at work a significant part of your life, so take the time to ensure that your mental wellbeing is a priority.
Identify and challenge any unhelpful or inaccurate beliefs
The way that we think about others, our situation, the world, and ourselves can have a major impact on how we feel and what we do. It can mean the difference between going to work feeling motivated and happy, or being filled with dread, sadness, and anxiety just at the thought of the next work day.
Perfectionism and unrelenting standards – a common cause for anxiety, frustration, low self-worth, low mood, procrastination, and reduced work efficiency. The main issue with perfectionism is that nothing is good enough, no matter how much effort you put in. It can lead to long hours at work, frequent checking, and frustration at oneself and at others around you. The goal posts keep moving and long-term satisfaction is rarely achieved. Action: Ask yourself whether you might be willing to drop your standards just by 5-10% and whether this difference will truly be noticed. There may be certain tasks that require far less perfection than others. Don’t use the same rule for every task regardless of its importance.
Focusing on the negatives and discounting the positives – this is a recipe for disaster (i.e. sadness, anxiety, low self-worth, etc). Often, because this process is so automatic, people are not very aware that they are doing this. However, there is a real danger in this way of thinking as it can affect how you encode memories and can build up a narrative of your life that is far more negative than it actually is. and comparisons to others and devaluing yourself – another highly common practice that results in low mood, anxiety, and low self-worth. This is very much linked to the tendency to focus on the negatives and discount the positives, specifically in yourself, while overemphasising other people’s positives and discounting their negatives. Action: Make a conscious effort to look at things in an objective manner. Make a mental note of both the positives and the negatives. If this is difficult for you, imagine how you would evaluate a similar situation if it happened to a friend. We can be much kinder to friends than ourselves. Remember that being cruel to yourself with unrelenting self-criticism will not lead to an improvement in performance. More likely, it will lead to unhappiness, low motivation, and a reduction in performance. All you need to improve your performance is self-reflection, which is a process that involves reviewing the past without the unnecessary cruelty. If you treat yourself kindly, you will feel happier, which in turn will increase motivation and in turn, your work performance.
Putting your mental wellbeing first and setting boundaries
It is absolutely ok to put your own wellbeing first and sometimes this involves setting crucial boundaries at work. Often colleagues and bosses don’t even know that you’re unhappy with the amount of responsibility, work, or hours being placed on you. If you don’t speak up and instead always say “OK”, how could they possibly know?
Take breaks – make a conscious effort to schedule in breaks in your day. Commit to them in the same way that you would to a work meeting. Your mental wellbeing is just as important as anything else at work. Take that lunch break, go for a walk, do a lunchtime fitness class and step away from your desk.
Say “no” – learn to say “no”. People cannot know what your limits and boundaries are if you do not tell them.
Take a mental health day or leave early if you need to. It makes sense. If you are struggling, pushing yourself through the week will likely only make you feel worse and impact your work performance. You may find that by taking a mental health day, you will feel far better and more able to take on any work activities the following day.
Don’t consistently work overtime – this will lead to fatigue, mental exhaustion, dissatisfaction, and resentment. Let your boss know that the amount of work you are being given is forcing you to regularly work overtime. This is a sign that there needs to be another person helping out with the work. If you don’t tell your boss, he or she may not know.
Social connection at work
Take the time to get to know your colleagues. You will be spending a lot of time with them. Human beings are social creatures. We crave social connection and interaction. Invite a colleague for a coffee or lunch, or find a work lunch gym buddy. Improving your social connections at work can really help with feeling more supported, valued and that you are a part of a team.
Work-life balance and self-care
There’s no point in getting that extra bonus or promotion and the money that comes with it, if you don’t have time to enjoy the rewards. Draw the boundaries and put yourself first. You are a priority.
Leave work on time – the other aspects of your life are important too.
Eat healthy and exercise regularly – physical health and mental health are strongly interlinked.
Social connections – make sure to carve out time for maintaining social connections outside of work. Having a greater sense of social support can have a positive impact on your overall mental wellbeing and sense of resilience.
Relax – you don’t always have to be doing something. Take the time to unwind at the end of the night. Lie down, read a book, listen to music, have a massage, light some candles, take a long bath, meditate, or do some gentle stretching. Find something that helps you unwind and make sure to do it regularly.
Have fun – you only live once. Make sure to carve out some time for fun activities that bring joy to your life. Sprinkle moments of positivity in each day and you will hopefully find that your mood improves too.
Create change from within
Sometimes it is important to start by creating change from within the workplace. It can be a scary step to take but may be highly rewarding once you start seeing the positive effects of your efforts.
Talk about mental health in the workplace. Start the conversation and help reduce the stigma associated with mental health issues. Speak to a colleague or a boss that you trust. Mental health issues are relevant to everyone. It is a brave step to take and one that can start a ripple effect in your organisation. Provide information and handouts about work related mental health issues. Invite mental health professionals to do talks. Remind your boss that unhappy workers may take more sick days and have poorer work output than happy workers. Show that it is in your boss’s best interest to improve mental wellbeing at work.
Discuss practical changes that can be made in the workplace. Identify some key issues in your workplace that may be affecting mental health and think of practical changes that can be implemented to resolve these. Don’t go to your boss just with the problems. Come up with some alternative solutions and present the positive consequences of these changes. This not only shows initiative on your part, but leadership, good problem-solving and forward thinking skills.
Review whether your current job or role is right for you
If you have been reading this article and find yourself strongly doubting that your colleagues or boss will respect any of the positive changes you may try to make in your life, it is very much worth asking two questions:
1) Is this an accurate assumption (i.e. do you have evidence for this assumption)?
2) If it is an accurate assumption, is it worth staying at a job or in a role that doesn’t respect you and your wellbeing?
Seek mental health support
A final note on seeking mental health support. There are a number of common issues that occur in the workplace and sometimes it can be difficult to try to manage all of them on your own. Common mental health issues that occur in a work context include: low mood, anxiety (in particular social and work performance anxiety), procrastination, perfectionism, poor work relationships, and difficulty saying no and asserting oneself. If you had a work skills related issue at work, you could ask for help from a colleague, a boss, or a mentor. In the same way, it is perfectly ok to look for help to build up mental health strategies that can help you manage your mood, anxiety, and relationships more effectively both inside and outside of work. Psychologists are trained professionals that know how to treat these conditions. Don’t be afraid to reach out if you need to.
Dr Liza Chervonsky is a co-founder and clinical psychologist at Inlight Psychology, in Bondi Junction. She has a Doctor of Clinical Psychology and PhD from the University of Sydney. Liza works with adults, adolescents, and children and incorporates a number of therapeutic modalities into her practice, including CBT, ACT, Mindfulness, Schema therapy, and DBT. Some of the most common issues that she treats include mood and anxiety disorders, work and academic issues, relationship issues, anger management issues and low self-esteem. To book an appointment, call (02) 8320 0566 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. For further information, please visit: www.inlightpsychology.com.au.