How to manage your own mental health at work

We understand the enormous pressures you are under as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. It is easy to be so focused on the people you support that you forget to look after yourself. So, it’s vital to try and remember that

you cannot pour from an empty cup.

We can all take steps to improve our own mental health and build our personal resilience to help us cope with adverse situations.

Self-care is a skill that needs to be practised. It isn’t always easy, especially if we feel anxious, depressed or low in self-esteem.

10 proven ways to help you to improve and manage your mental health at work

In this list there’s bound to be one or two you can do well – these can be your go-to methods for working on your wellbeing as they are easily achievable and work well for you.

Look for the ones you find hard and treat these as your challenges. It may be that these areas are the ones you neglect under stress – for example drinking too much, isolating yourself or comfort eating are all examples of ways we try and cope that are the opposite of what the evidence tells us works for our mental health.

Finally, look for one or two areas that you feel you could work on or give a go, you should view these areas as your aims – your challenges and aims can be the same, but remember to be kind to yourself and view them as aims that you can meet more easily than a challenge.

Get talking about how you feel

Talking about how you feel can help maintain good mental health and make you better equipped to cope when you feel troubled. Talking about feelings isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s part of taking ownership of your wellbeing and doing what you can to stay healthy.

It can be particularly hard to talk about feelings at work. If you have colleagues you can talk to or a manager who asks how you are at supervision sessions, it can be a real help.

Try to identify someone that you would feel comfortable with, that you can talk openly to and who will be supportive. You may want to think about what you want to share, who with, and when might be a good time and place to do this.

If you are open about how you feel at work, especially if you are a leader, it might encourage others to do the same – making it part of your culture at work.

If you don’t feel able to talk about feelings at work, make sure there’s someone you can discuss work pressures with – your partner, family and friends can all be a good sounding board.

Keep active

Regular exercise can boost your self-esteem, improve concentration, help you get a better night’s sleep and make you feel more positive.

Expert advice recommends that most people should do about 30 minutes of exercise at least five days a week. Remember, exercising doing have to involve going to the gym or doing sports. Think of the things you enjoy doing, no matter how small the movements may seem, and try to make them part of your day.

You may have a physical job like construction or teaching – you’ll notice if you are off sick because of injury or physical illness how quickly your mood starts to be affected by the change in activity level.

If you work in an office environment it can make a huge difference to get out for a walk at lunchtime or to build in exercise before or after work to ease you into the day or create a space between work time and personal time.

Eat well

What and when we eat can affect how we feel both immediately and in the longer term. A diet that is good for your physical health is also good for your mental health.

It can be hard to keep up a healthy pattern of eating at work, but try to stick to regular meals and plan ahead for mealtimes at work – you could bring food from home or choose to buy from a retailer that sells healthy options for lunch. Drink plenty of water throughout the day – it is recommended we drink 6 to 8 glasses of fluid a day. Water, lower fat milk and sugar-free drinks, including tea and coffee, all count.

Getting up and physically moving away from your desk to eat is highly recommended as it gives you a clear space away from distractions, making you more aware of the food you are eating. You’ll probably find that you enjoy it more too. You could even try a lunch club at work where you club together to share meals and try new things. For busy times, or times when you are feeling low or stressed, try reducing or giving up caffeine and refined sugar and instead opt for decaffeinated products. Make sure you have a supply of fruit/vegetables and snacks like nuts to help you get through the day.

Being mindful of others – some people find eating in public at work very stressful because of past or current eating disorders. If someone doesn’t want to come to work dinners, or makes different food choices in the office, please don’t pass comment or put pressure on them to join in.

Sensible tipples

Very often people drink alcohol to change their mood. Some people drink to try to overcome their fears or feelings of loneliness, but the effect is only temporary.

Most people don’t drink at work – but most of us recognise the pattern of drinking more at the weekend or in the evening when work is hard going.

Be careful with work functions that include drinking. It can be tempting to have a drink for ‘Dutch courage’, but if you feel anxious you may drink too much and end up behaving in a way you’d rather not, which will increase feelings of anxiety in the medium to long term.

Alcohol support services

Keeping in touch

Relationships are vital to our mental health. Working in a supportive team is hugely important for our mental health at work.

We don’t always have a choice about who we work with, and if we don’t get on with managers, colleagues or clients, it can create tension. It may be that you need to practise more self-care at these times, but you may also need to address difficulties.

Work politics can pose as a real challenge when we have mental health problems. It can be helpful to find someone who can be your mentor or a small group of trusted colleagues with whom you feel comfortable talking through your feelings about work – it’s always good to have someone you can trust to listen, run things past and help you work through any challenges you are experiencing.

Make sure you maintain your friendships and family relationships outside of work, even when work is intense – a work–life balance is hugely important. Experts now believe that loneliness may be as bad for our health as obesity or smoking.

Asking for help

None of us are superhuman – however much we might want to be sometimes! We can all get tired or overwhelmed by how we feel or get frustrated and feel low when things don’t go to plan.

Your employer may provide occupational health support which you can access through your line manager or HR service. If your employer doesn’t have this service in-house, ask your line manager if there is an external partner that you can access.

The first port of call in the health service is your local GP practice. Over a third of visits to see a GP are about mental health. Your GP may suggest ways that you or your family can help, or they may refer you to see a specialist or another part of the health service. Your GP may also be able to refer you to a counsellor.

Time out

A change of scene or pace is really good for your mental health. This could be a simple five minute pause from what you are doing – give yourself some ‘me time’ to reflect and de-stress you. Sometimes we don’t know we are stressed until we take a little pause. Try to build in mini pauses throughout your day, such as making a cup of tea, watching a bird outside in the trees or reading a couple of pages of a book.

Lengthier pauses are just as important. Try to plan ahead and organise a weekend exploring somewhere new or setting aside an evening to cook something new. Having something to look forward to that is separate from your work can give a little reset. Be kind to yourself – we all need some resets when life gets busy.

If your employer offers mental health days – discretionary leave to look after your wellbeing – take them up on the offer, and make sure you use them well.

Make sure you take the holidays and time off you are entitled to. It can be hard to take holidays and time off when we are busy and stressed at work, but actually this is when we need them most. Try and plan periods of leave for the year so that you always have a break to look forward to.

When you are on leave or at home, resist the temptation to check in with work emails. It will only take opening one email and you will be back in work mode. If you find that you can’t break away, it may be a sign that you should be re-thinking your workload to manage stress.

Sleep is essential to our mental health. Listen to your body. Without good sleep, our mental health suffers, concentration goes downhill and our outward appearance shows it to the world too.

How to improve your sleep

Do something you’re good at and get the positive vibes flowing

What do you love doing? Quite often we get so caught up with busy work and home lives that we forget what brings us real enjoyment and that much needed boost to your self-esteem.

Think about the activities that you can totally lose yourself in, what are they and how you can build them into your life. Enjoying yourself can help beat stress. Doing an activity that you enjoy probably means you’re good at it and that sense of achievement boosts positivity and supports a healthy mindset.

Concentrating on a hobby, like gardening or painting, can help you forget your worries for a while and can change your mood. Don’t feel guilty about making the time for you to do something you love.

It’s OK to be good at your job – when you feel stressed, it can be easy to forget your talents, or fall foul of feeling like a fraud who doesn’t deserve your successes.

If possible, you should plan your workload to include tasks you know you are good at, so as to ‘sandwich’ things you know will be harder or more stressful. At work, you may have a hobby you’d like to share or join in with colleagues on – a work cycling club, book group or crafting group can be a great way to share a skill with others.

Accept yourself for who you are

We are all unique individual human beings. Be proud of who you are – it’s much healthier to accept that you’re different from others than wishing you were more like someone else. Feeling good about yourself boosts your confidence which in turn will support you with learning new skills, visiting new places and making new friends. Good self-esteem helps you cope when life takes a difficult turn.

Recognise and learn to accept the things you may not be good at, but also remember to keep a focus on what you can do well to keep you in a positive mindset. You could write a list of anything about yourself that you would like to change – then look at the list and see if our expectations are realistic. If they are, work towards the change in small steps.

Self-acceptance and self-care can be very hard when you have a mental health problem and will be an ongoing challenge you need to work on.

It can be tempting to  build your self-esteem around work success. This can often mean that people with mental health problems give everything they have at work and as a result are high achievers. It also creates a risk that when things go wrong, when mistakes are made, or when change is necessary, people do not cope, feel a sense of failure or become very downhearted.

Mindfulness is a form of meditation that involves you paying deliberate attention to what is going on around you as it happens. As we reconnect with our minds and bodies and the sensations they experience it helps us to feel more connected, more balanced and able to cope and more compassionate to those around us.

Caring for other people

Caring for others is often an important part of maintaining good relationships with people who are close to you.

In our working life we can be presented with opportunities to care for others – contributing through vocational jobs like nursing or care work can be hugely significant for mental health. In most jobs, you can choose to be there for colleagues and care for others, even if it’s just making them a cuppa and lending a caring ear for 10 minutes.

As an employer or as a line manager, there are other things we can do to show we care, like providing mentorship, coaching or training – these are all great ways to support others.

Helping others can make us feel valued and needed as individuals – this boosts our self-esteem and supports a positive outlook.

Volunteering can be hugely rewarding, and it can help us to see the world through a different lens. This can, in turn, help us to put our own problems into perspective. Many organisations have volunteering opportunities and corporate social responsibility programmes that enable staff to get involved in community work.

Caring responsibilities at home can be hugely rewarding to us, but equally, they can be a source of stress. Our roles as parents or carers for relatives can collide with our work identities and leave us feeling tired and frustrated. Carers are at greater risk of developing mental health problems. Work can provide a respite for carers as they can be someone else at work, so it is important to retain and support carers in the workplace. Workplaces that support flexible working, carers’ leave, childcare voucher schemes and other initiatives to support caring roles can have a huge impact on staff mental health and productivity.

Be mindful of those around you – simply checking in with someone to ask how they are feeling can help them in knowing they are not alone and provide support.

Support for carers

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