Managing Mental Health at Work — Knowing When Enough Is Enough

work mental health

Last week, a man you’ve probably never heard of stepped away from his job. Why is this news? Because Tom Blomfield was a CEO and co-founder of a leading neo-bank in the UK, Monzo. Why’d he step away? To take care of his mental health.

Last month, a woman I hope you’ve heard of also stepped away from her job. Why is this news? Because she’s Jesy Nelson, from wildly underrated pop band Little Mix (who you better have heard of). Why’d she step away? Because, in her words, being in the band was taking a toll on her mental health.

It’s pretty big news that two well-known, high-up people stepped away from their hugely successfully jobs to take care of their mental health. Although they live wildly different lives than we do, it’s still validating to know no matter how successful you are, you can still struggle with mental health.

Mental health in the workplace is an under-discussed topic, unfortunately. For a lot of us, it’s part and parcel of the modern job. Unfortunately, a recent survey from payroll and HR company ADP found that a third of people wouldn’t be comfortable talking to anyone at their workplace about their mental health. Mental health issues cost the Australian economy an estimated $17 billion, annually.

So how do you manage your mental health at work? And when do you know whether you should, like Blomfield and Nelson did, step away from the job?

The Latch spoke to Amber Rules, director and founder of Rough Patch, an affordable counselling and mental health care service, about navigating and managing, mental health at work.

Why are work and our mental health so intertwined?

Not only do we spend a huge amount of our life at work, but for some of us “our work is an extension of our values, the things we care about, or the things we want for ourselves,” explains Rules. For those of us who do jobs that are important to us, or that align with our values can be “deeply invested in our jobs.”

Not only this, but Rules lists a plethora of other reasons why work may be affecting our mental health: “Perhaps we’re under an enormous amount of pressure to perform or produce work. Perhaps we don’t get paid a wage that allows us to live comfortably. Perhaps our work is casual or unstable.

“Perhaps the people in positions of power, such as managers or owners, behave in ways that impact us but we can’t say anything about it for fear of the consequences.”

Is it helpful when public figures talk openly about their mental health regarding work? 

“It’s hugely helpful,” says Rules. Not only does it normalise mental health struggles, but it also helps reduce the stigma associated with it, and can change policy and approaches to mental health in the workplace.

Personally, she believes it’s a fallacy that talking about mental health or providing support and making allowances for people struggling with mental health is somehow bad for business.

“Research shows that looking after employees’ mental health can actually increase productivity and increase the average length of time that an employee stays in a job.”

How can I manage my mental health at work?

Rules is brimming with tips when it comes to managing your mental health at work. Her first tip is to create simple boundaries at work. These include ensuring you take your breaks; going for a walk (try through a green space!) if you sit at a desk (or vice versa if you do physical work); eating and drinking enough; and leaving on time when possible. And don’t forget to plan time off.

Setting boundaries is another one of her suggestions. “Practice using phrases such as: ‘Unfortunately I don’t have the capacity to take that on right now. Could I get back to you with a timeline for when I can?’ or ‘I’m unable to discuss this with you while your voice is raised. Perhaps we can come back to it later’ or ‘I don’t feel comfortable doing that. Let’s ask someone else their opinion’.”

If there is a particular issue, or colleague, you’re struggling with, consider speaking to a counsellor. Here’s a guide to finding the right therapist for you.

Many places have Employee Assistant Programs (EAP), which provide free counselling sessions – you can find this out through HR or management. And don’t worry, they’re strictly confidential and will never feed information back to your workplace. In fact, as they’re contracted by the EAP company, they may not even know where you work unless you tell them.

How do I know when enough is enough? What can I do then?

“I think if you’ve tried talking about what is going on, if you’ve tried setting boundaries, if you’ve reached the point where you see a counsellor for support, and nothing feels like it’s improving or has potential to improve, it’s time to move on,” Rules advises.

Signs you may have reached the end of your workplace tether includes noticing you’re dreading going into work; feeling more anxious and depressed than usual; not wanting to do anything during your time away from work; having intrusive or unwanted thoughts about it.

Rules suggests talking to a counsellor to navigate these experiences, and to help you prepare to leave the job.

What about those of us who can’t leave a job? What strategies help here?

Leaving a job without another lined up, and knowing we’ll be okay in that instance is a huge privilege. And whether it’s for financial, familial, or other reasons, not anyone can leave a job that’s impacting their mental health.

Rules understands, but does suggest to begin working on a plan. Elements of this plan include asking a trusted one for help in preparing your resume and cover letter, taking leave to focus on anything that needs to be completed in order to start planning the move.

Other things you can do is reach out to past employers asking if they’d be willing to give you a reference and asking for support from like-minded, trustworthy colleagues.

As Rules says, “Feeling stuck is one of the most disempowering feelings in the world, so take small steps towards the bigger goal.”

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