The sad truth is, mental health and wellness at work often fall by the wayside. It’s been estimated that up to 14.7% of people experience some form of mental health problem in the workplace and 9 in 10 employees say that workplace stress affects their mental health. Despite this, less than 30% of employees feel comfortable talking to their managers about their mental health. 

While we at Wrk believe business leaders have a responsibility to ensure their team has the support they need, we also believe in empowering employees to take ownership of their own mental health and to be aware of how they can help themselves. We explain some common causes of poor mental health in the workplace and share some ideas to help you cope. 

What causes poor mental health in the workplace?

According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, 40% of American employees experience persistent stress or excessive anxiety in their daily lives and 28% have had an anxiety or panic attack. What’s more, at least half of respondents say stress and anxiety impact their quality of work, relationships with co-workers and peers, and overall workplace performance.

Typically, there is no single factor that causes poor mental health in the workplace; there are often several contributing factors. And if they aren’t addressed, employees may face high stress both at work and in their personal lives and ultimately suffer from employee burnout

The Anxiety & Depression Association of America notes that main causes of workplace stress may include deadlines, interpersonal relationships, staff management, and dealing with issues or problems that arise. However, the World Health Organization cites even more causes such as low level of support for employees, unclear tasks or organizational objectives, low control over one’s area of work and limited participation and decision making, inflexible working hours, and poor communication and management policies. 

How do you prioritize your mental health at work?

Despite the fact that managers and business leaders can tackle a lot of issues for their employees, the first step to prioritizing mental health at work is starting from the bottom up. Here are some helpful tips to create better mental health in the workplace—both in person and remotely—and beyond.

Know your limits 

The first step to taking ownership of your mental health in the workplace is to know your own limits and be aware of what you can accomplish on any given day or week. While it’s good to set high expectations for yourself in terms of productivity and the delivery of work, the key is to make sure your goals are actually realistic. It’s also important for you to take stock of your workload and ensure it’s not overwhelming. 

What’s more, it’s vital that you’re aware of when you’re starting to get stressed so that you know when to seek support. You may know you’re beginning to reach your limits if you start to feel anxious, agitated, or stressed. 

Learn to say no 

Once you’re aware of your limits, learn to say no to extras and establish healthy boundaries. While this may seem simple, a lot of times it isn’t easy to say no. This could be for many reasons. You may feel the need to please people or hope that by taking on more responsibilities than you can realistically handle, you may get ahead. Other times, you may feel you are being put on the spot to answer a request immediately, especially if you’re being asked face-to-face or in a meeting. 

Accepting additional work when your plate is already full can lead to stress on your part, which can lead to poor mental health. And believe it or not, there is a nice way to say no. 

If a superior or co-worker asks you to take on a request that you aren’t sure you should take on, you can start off by asking when this project would be due, if no date or time has been provided already. You could then say you need some time to assess your other priorities to ensure you have time to accommodate this request. If completing this new project is a high priority, then you can always see if you can shift your other work around to make time for the new request without too much stress on your part. After all, some tasks can wait until tomorrow. If it becomes clear after this process that taking on this responsibility would add more strain on you, you can start off by thanking your peer for thinking of you, but that you’re currently committed to other work at this time that needs to be completed. You can also let your colleague know that should this change, you’d be happy to help, or that once you are completed your other work you could offer some assistance where needed. In this sense, it’s not as much of a “no” as it is a “not right now.” 

Ask for help

There is absolutely no shame in asking for help or support with work when and where you need it. It’s vital that you know when you should ask for help from your leaders or co-workers, and offer help to other co-workers when you can to support them as well, as it goes a long way towards creating a healthy and happy work culture overall. 

In addition, if you’re a business leader yourself, it’s important that you set an example for your team when it comes to looking out for your own mental health. After all, creating avenues for employees to seek out help starts with ensuring they feel safe enough to do so.  

“I was lucky enough to be told very early on in my career that ‘A leader who doesn’t look out for themselves is never a leader for long’ and I’ve held this truth close to heart ever since. I’m thrilled to see the industry slowly shifting away from burnout as a badge of honour, and instead place a greater emphasis on flex hours and mental health,” says Kelsea Gust, Director of Marketing at Wrk. “That said, it’s still rare to look up the ladder and see strong examples of work-life balance and self-care. When it comes to promoting a healthy working culture, it really can’t be ‘do as I say, not as I do.’”

“In order to create a space where your team feels the security to look after themselves, express their needs, and share their concerns, you need to lead by doing. If your employees look across the office or through the Slack feed and see you burning the midnight oil, it doesn’t matter how often you encourage them to seek out balance,” she continues. 

“Leaders who set boundaries, dedicate time to family, resist the 3 a.m. email, and take the odd sick day build a culture of self-care that no peddled policy could wish to create.”

Step away

Sometimes the best way to take care of your mental health at work is to simply take a break and step away from your desk, even for a mere 10 or 15 minutes. Taking a short break can reduce stress and even improve focus and productivity. Research suggests that taking short breaks during your workday can even prevent “decision fatigue,” as the need to make decisions throughout your day can wear on your willpower and reasoning ability. What’s more, taking a break can also improve your motivation. According to Nir Eyal, an author known for his best-selling book Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, “When we work, our prefrontal cortex makes every effort to help us execute our goals. But for a challenging task that requires our sustained attention, research shows briefly taking our minds off the goal can renew and strengthen motivation later on.”

Consider going for a walk, sitting outside, or just taking a quick coffee break so you are focussed when you return. If time allows, you could even consider taking a mid-afternoon “power nap” of 10-20 minutes, as that little bit of rest can actually improve your overall mood and performance, and even increase alertness. 

Stay organized & set a schedule

Your workload may seem overwhelming. But by organizing your time and tasks, you may be able to keep your cool and will feel more in control of your workload. Consider keeping a checklist of all your daily or weekly tasks and sort them by highest priority to lowest priority, and make note of items that are to be completed only if time allows and can technically wait. 

You should also have a clear start and end time to your workdays so that your schedule is more predictable and manageable. This can go a long way towards setting healthy boundaries and creating a positive work-life balance that allows you to use time outside of work to recharge your batteries. 

Take care of yourself 

Ultimately, the best way to take care of your mental health both during and outside of work is to take care of yourself. Get enough sleep at night, exercise regularly, and consume a healthy diet, with sugary and fatty foods either eliminated or in moderation (because sometimes the heart wants what the heart wants, and what it wants is a warm chocolate chip cookie). Research shows that a good night’s sleep, consistent exercise, and eating well all contribute to lower stress and anxiety. This combination has also been shown to be effective in fighting mild to moderate depression. 

Flipping the script on mental health stigma

While these mental health improvement tips may really benefit you, they aren’t foolproof. It’s also vital to seek out medical professional help if you need it. If you’re located in Canada, the Canadian Centre for Mental Health and Sport has a lot of helpful resources. If you’re located in the U.S., The National Institute of Mental Health also shares some important resources. 

At the end of the day, there remains a prominent stigma against mental health. It’s important that both inside and outside of the workplace, we work together to flip the script. 

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