The buzz phrase “mental health at work” and the discussion around it highlights one of the paradoxes of our time. The numbers are alarming – more about that in a minute – and we need them to even begin to grasp the scope of the problem, understand the bigger picture and find effective solutions for it.
Yet, at the root of hundreds of millions of people worldwide struggling with and suffering from a variety of mental illnesses is, in a very generalised way, that we as humans have become mere numbers, a commodity to society. A monetary value has been assigned to our life, our health, the energy and genius that we can contribute to the workforce at large.
How much can you contribute to your country’s GDP? How much do we need to invest in you and your wellbeing and what will you realistically be able to give back? We have become an economical figure and this is how society defines our worth.
It’s the numbers, the statistics, though, that are bringing awareness to the correlation between workplace environment, stress and mental illness.
They allow us enough distance and detachment to the complexity of personal stories of suffering people to get clear on what can be done to improve the overall mental health situation within a workplace setting before we zoom in to fine-tune adjustments that can and should be made on an individual level.
Ironically, the numbers show very clearly that to maintain or regain good mental health, we need to nurture what was lost when companies and institutions started to focus on numbers rather than the human: connection, community, psychological safety, boundaries as well as a good balance between work and private life.
In this blog post, we will look at what good mental health is, how to identify signs of poor mental health at work and explore what can be done to improve mental health at work.
What is mental health?
We are not all that different from one another. At a fundamental level, we all yearn for love.
We long to be seen and heard. We hope to be accepted and appreciated for who we are. To evolve and grow and unfold our full potential, we need to feel safe. And we all need water, food and shelter – none of which is free.
Bottom line: We share the same basic needs while being entirely unique. We are, first and foremost, beautifully, imperfectly human.
Just as we’d tend to our physical health with exercise, a balanced diet, enough sleep, etc., we need to tend to and nurture our psychological and emotional needs to maintain good mental health.
Neither physical nor mental health are static, they fluctuate throughout life and sometimes even throughout a day, depending on our current circumstances.
Good mental health...
Signs of poor mental health at work
Before we dive into signs of poor mental health at work and how to identify them, let’s have a look at some facts and figures first:
And yet, people who have or have had mental health problems and do work, add as much as £225 billion to the economy per year, which equals 12.1% of the UK’s total GDP. It is also “as high as nine times the estimated cost to economic output arising from mental health problems at work.”
Apart from those numbers, studies have also shown that open communication about mental health at a workplace leads to less mental health related sick days and boosts morale.
So, the question is not: How important is it for companies to focus on their employees mental health? Nor is it: How much energy and resources is it worth putting into employees’ mental health?
There are a lot of different signs and symptoms that point towards an arising or existing mental health problem. And it is about trying to recognise them as early as possible within ourselves as well as in our colleagues or employees and either ask for or offer the help and support that’s needed.
Declining mental health – signs and symptoms to look out for:
The most common mental health issues that show up in a workplace setting are stress, depression, anxiety and burnout. Every person is different and even though two people might struggle with the same mental health problem, for example depression, they might experience it to a different extent or have different symptoms.
Work or the workplace environment might be the cause of the mental health problem or it might merely aggravate a pre-existing issue. In any case, the employer should strive to support each person as individually as possible. For the help to be effective, it should ideally be tailored to that person’s specific needs.
Ways to Improve Mental Health at Work
The most common factors that put employers’ mental health at risk are:
Especially the latter majorly impacts a team’s mental health. The Health and wellbeing at work survey report from 2021 identified the “management style” as the second main cause of work-related stress.
It’s not just the employer’s responsibility to take care of everybody’s mental health. First and foremost, we should prioritise and tend to our own mental health and do everything within our power to keep it good.
The following paragraphs introduce a several ways in which you can improve your mental health at work:
Mindfulness – be present
Many studies have proven the power of mindfulness, of bringing your full awareness and attention to the present moment, the environment around you and the task at hand.
At New Life Portugal, we teach a variety of mindful techniques that will enhance your overall sense of wellbeing and can help you cope better with the ups and downs and stresses of everyday life. Get in touch to learn more about our approach and the different programs we offer and how they can be tailored to your individual needs.
Simple things you can do to help you stay present at your workplace:
Connect and keep in touch
Connection is a fundamental human need. Feeling close to, appreciated and valued by other people positively impacts how well we are able to function in this world. It is essential for our wellbeing and contributes to us maintaining good mental health.
Ideas to connect and keep in touch with colleagues:
Productiveness and concentration decrease if we don’t take breaks. It can also lead to us becoming unwell. If you can, get up every hour even if it’s just for five minutes to stretch your leg, go outside or at least stick your head out a window to breathe in a few lungfuls of fresh air.
Don’t do your lunch break at your desk. Go for a walk and maybe have your food picnic style somewhere on a park bench or on a lawn. Listen to an audiobook or meditate – even if it’s just for five or 15 minutes.
Having boundaries and a good balance between work and private life was a tough one in the corporate world before COVID-19. Since the pandemic and many of us switching to home office full-time, it has become even more difficult as well as absolutely crucial.
Some tips about boundaries at work:
Ask for help
It is okay not to be okay. It is okay to ask for help. We are no robots. The amount of work we can take on and handle efficiently while keeping up the quality might vary depending where we are at emotionally, mentally and physically.
If you feel overwhelmed or overworked, speak to your manager or supervisor and ask if a deadline can be moved or if you can hand something off to a colleague. Maybe there are other ways your employer could support you?
Be authentic, dare to talk about your feelings and accept yourself
“Vulnerability is the last thing I want you to see in me, but the first thing I look for in you.” – Brené Brown
Brené Brown is a renowned shame and vulnerability researcher, professor, and author of several books. She’s also given two TED talks that have gone viral and has been featured in a Netflix documentary. She analysed decades worth of data and found that “vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity.”
It takes courage to allow ourselves to be vulnerable and dare to be imperfectly ourselves in a world where so many people pretend to be fine, pretend to be this or that, where it seems to be so much more about appearances than authenticity. None of us have it together all the time and most people are winging it, regardless if they can admit to it or not.
If you dare to be vulnerable and find someone you can open up to about how you truly are it might encourage them to do the same. When you open up about where you are at and how you feel, you will very likely find that you are not alone, that others can relate. It’s not even about having someone try and help you or find a solution for you but just being seen and having someone compassionately acknowledge that what you’re going through is tough, can be helpful and healing in itself.
If there’s no-one at work that feels safe enough to be fully open with, surround yourself with people or find at least one person in your private life that you can just be yourself with.
Focus on your strengths and do something you’re good at
Almost everyone suffers from imposter syndrome from time to time. You are probably really good at your job but sometimes there are a couple of days or even a week where things just seem to be going wrong. Maybe you’re distracted or made a mistake that keeps bugging you.
In those instances, it’s all too easy to forget how skilled and talented we are in many areas. Therefore, it helps to focus on your strengths – at work and/or in your private life (a sport or a hobby). Engage in a task or do something that you know you’re good at (this could be Excel spreadsheets, a presentation, cooking, doing something crafty,…) and allow it to boost your self-esteem.
Science has proven that moving your body and spending time in nature are not only cornerstones of your physical health and boost your immune system, but they have a major positive impact on your nervous system and mental health as well.
Forest bathing, for example, significantly reduces stress and can aid with depression and anxiety. Furthermore, doing sports helps you sleep better and can make you more self-confident.
Tips to be more active at/on your way to work:
Give back – care for others
Giving back and caring for others fills us with a sense of purpose. It can make us feel valued and needed and helps nurture the relationships with those close to you. It might even give us a sense of belonging to be part of and contribute to something that’s bigger than ourselves. And it might help put whatever you are struggling with into perspective.
All of these are hugely beneficial for our mental health.
Some of us, who follow vocations as doctors, nurses, carers, midwives, priests or a similar profession may find that sense of purpose at work.
If you don’t, you could give back to family and friends through random acts of kindness or start volunteering at a soup kitchen, in a hospice, teach English to refugees or kids how to grow vegetables at a community garden.
Mental health & wellbeing retreats at New Life Portugal
Sometimes the best and kindest thing we can do for ourselves is stepping away and taking a break.
New Life Portugal is a unique combination of recovery centre and wellness retreat.
Our skilled and experienced therapists, counsellors and coaches offer a wide range of therapeutic elements, mindfulness practices (including meditation), personal training and yoga.