How to look after your mental health at work

Working Life
How to look after your mental health at work How to look after your mental health at work How to look after your mental health at work How to look after your mental health at work

Greater support and advice is helping many to better manage their mental health in the workplace. Here are six key ways you can look after yourself.

Office, factory, hospital, school, warehouse, roads, rails and beyond – work pressures can affect anyone, at anytime, anywhere. Given the daily demands from deadlines, always-on technology and gruelling hours, it’s no surprise that stress can take its toll on your mind and body.

A struggle with workplace issues can be both a cause and outcome of conditions like anxiety and depression.

Left untreated, these can be the source of great personal pain and have an impact on businesses and economies – poor mental health costs the UK economy approximately £70 billion annually, figures show.

Today, one in four people in the UK experiences a mental health problem so if you’re among them, you’re not alone. And thanks to a huge rise in awareness, a surge in the amount of available support and advice is helping many to better manage their mental health in the workplace.

We’ve highlighted six of the most popular ways to look after yourself below.

Of course, everyone will have their own preferences but it’ll help to explore the different types of approach to see what could work for you.

If you’re worried about your mental health, you can see your family doctor or GP about it. They should be able to give you advice about treatment, and may refer you to another local professional who may be able to help.

1. Be kinder to yourself

It can be easy to be overly critical of yourself, or your work, but it’s likely you’re being harder on yourself than you deserve.

This is because, for many, it’s instinctive to focus on what went wrong rather than what went right, in a bid to try and improve your fortunes.

To this end, the role of self-compassion - the act of being kind to yourself through steps such as acceptance of mistakes and mindfulness, for example – can play a crucial part when you feel intrusive or negative thoughts.
A study by the universities of Exeter and Oxford found that taking part in self-compassion exercises calms the heart rate and switches off the body's threat response – effectively lowering the risk of disease.

Dr Susan David, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School, says it’s crucial to recognise that you are doing the best you can — with who you are, what you’ve got, and with the resources at your disposal.

“When you’re self-compassionate, you know that even if you fail, you’ll still like yourself. In this way, self-compassion gives you the ability to…be courageous,” she says in a key TED post.

2. Tackle the triggers that cause you stress

Mental health charity Mind defines stress as “our reaction to being placed under pressure – the feelings we get when we have demands placed on us that we find difficult to cope with.”

While some small degree of stress can be a healthy part of life - helping you take control, secure results or feel more energised – it can become a problem if it starts to overwhelm you.
A key first step is to work out what triggers your stress. Common workplace triggers could be related to rejection (missing promotion), criticism (of work or performance), or someone simply being constantly busy or unavailable.

Once you’re aware of what your triggers are and why they make you feel a certain way, you can prepare to manage your emotional response.

For example, if a build-up of work before a deadline causes you stress, consider getting help for better time management. Similarly, if you find you’re taking on too much at once, learn to set firmer work boundaries. Don’t be afraid to push back against requests that might create extra stress in your life.

As a more general approach, you could try to develop your emotional resilience or reframe negative thoughts as hypotheses rather than facts which hold you back.

Many specialists also recommend practical steps to take to reduce stress in the moment, such as a brisk walk in fresh air to clear your head, or this NHS-approved breathing exercise.

Both take only a few minutes and could help regulate your breathing when you’re feeling anxious. 

3. Be mindful of mindfulness

Mindfulness – stepping back from modern life to calmly focus on what you’re doing at a given moment – has mushroomed in popularity and practice.

In our always-on web-wired world of work, its meditative ability to help you counter stress and recharge your batteries by deliberately slowing down your actions and thoughts has won over many followers. 

A simple set of exercises you can try, suggested by mental health charity Mind, include mindful eating (focusing intently on your food’s texture, taste and heat), mindful running (scrutinise the feelings of wind on your skin and ground on your feet) and even mindful drawing (give your attention to the sensation of pencil on paper rather than creating a picture).

This can, over time, lead to enhanced creativity, focus and productivity. Researchers from Johns Hopkins University also found that mindful meditation can help ease psychological stresses like anxiety, depression, and pain.

A number of companies have recognised its benefits, with Google, Apple and Nike all offering meditation rooms on site.

If you’re new to the concept, you could try this ten-minute exercise or explore popular mindfulness apps like Headspace.

4. Check you’re sleeping and eating well...

A lack of a good night’s sleep can directly affect your ability to work.

While many causes will of course be temporary – a new baby, illness or worry about a big work project – if it becomes an established pattern, it can be debilitating.

Lack of concentration and greater irritability can severely affect your performance, along with sluggishness or fatigue.

To help, sleep expert Vicki Culpin, who has described the UK as being in the midst of an epidemic of sleeplessness, offers these tips:

  • Avoid heavy or spicy food within three hours of bedtime
  • Use thick curtains, blackout blinds or even an eye-mask to make your room darker
  • Devise a regular wind-down routine for your day
  • Impose a blanket ban on technology – everything from tablets to smartphones and TVs - in the bedroom

Similarly, a poor diet – think too much sugar, junk food or processed food daily - can affect your physical and mental health at work.

While this won’t come as a surprise to many, it’s worth hammering home the message as the impact it can have is huge. Thankfully, the internet is chock-a-block with free innovative ways to become a healthy eater – including this NHS advice - so make sure you find one to suit your interests.

As a rule, be sure to try and eat regularly, and choose foods that are slow to release energy and help you maintain focus: wholegrain pasta, brown rice, and cereals.

Try not to skip meals (or rely on sugary snacks instead) because you’re busy, as low blood sugar causes exhaustion and irritability.

And where you can, prepare healthy lunches the night before work. For instance, if you’re prepared to be adventurous but want to stay with a simple approach, take inspiration from recipes like big-flavour broccoli, roasted squash salad with crispy chickpeas and meatballs with tahini sauce.

…and find time to get fitter too

It’s a time-honoured tip that there’s simply no way to avoid – exercise can give your mental and physical health one of the biggest boosts. Those who exercise regularly report significantly better mental health than those who don’t. You’ll find free guides galore online and to use out and about – for an easy start, you could try working out with professional trainers via FitOn app or limber up at home with the nation’s PE teacher Joe Wicks, for exercise you can do with family or friends.

6. Speak up for support if you need to

If you find you’re starting to struggle with your mental health at work, ask for help. The vast majority of employers want their colleagues to succeed – and should be happy making any reasonable adjustments to support any mental health help. In most cases, your first point of call will be your manager.

If you’re worried about raising the issue – particularly if the stress or anxiety is linked to pressure they’ve created – then prepare to be candid in your meeting. Explain the nature of your issue and what you think you might need to resolve the problem - in particular, emphasise your concern about your ability to do your job. Ask a friend to help you prepare, and include difficult questions for them to test you on to help build confidence.

If you’re self-employed, it’ll be worth contacting Mind directly for their advice, or reading their members’ experience for help and guidance.

For many looking to improve their mental health at work, it’s also worth highlighting how work has the potential to be a force for good; it can provide routine and structure, as well as a source of income and sense of identity. The relationships and friendships formed at work, and the opportunities for personal and professional growth, can be invaluable for a well-balanced approach to good mental health.


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