GUEST BLOG – Mental Health/ Well-being in the modern world/workplace? What does it really mean?

Mindfulness, well-being, mental health, emotional welfare… words that we constantly hear being thrown around, but what does it all mean? And how is it more than just being happy?

It can feel overwhelming to hear so much about how to keep our minds healthy, without a true understanding of how to exert this into our everyday lives. While most of us know the importance of looking after our mental health, it can be easy to neglect when other (seemingly more important) commitments take over. In typical human nature, just because we know something is good for us, doesn’t mean we will do it. Weird, right?

Unfortunately, 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience mental health problems at some point. And 1 in 6.8 experience mental health problems in the workplace. Whether it’s a busy schedule, difficult co-workers, or demanding deadlines, it’s no surprise that work can be stress-inducing and that experiencing mental health issues in the workplace is becoming increasingly common.

We are all victims of prioritizing our careers over our emotional well-being at times (yes, you too) and this is not always a bad thing. Amongst many benefits, a job can provide us with an increased sense of identity, a familiar routine, a steady income, and contact with others. Problems arise, however, when the line between work and home life fades and work-related stress can be defined as a mental health issue, and it becomes hard to separate the two.

With the stigma around mental health slowly deteriorating, there is no better time to delve into the true meaning of self-care and how we can incorporate low commitment and sustainable habits into our work schedules. And don’t worry, it’s not just meditation and self-help books.

The reasons behind work-related stress and its symptoms:

Endless emails, procrastination, sleepless nights, feeling like your body is going to explode with overload. We’ve all been there. Whether it’s the workload itself or simply long and grueling hours – love your job or not – work stress has or will play a part in all of our lives. It is important to note that stress is normal, and a common human reaction to lots of things. However, workplace stress has been steadily increasing over the last few decades, and since Covid-19, it has reached an all-time high. While stress and mental health illnesses can live independently, stress can aggravate a pre-existing mental health issue or vice versa – making it hard to distinguish them.

Record levels of the stress hormone cortisol have effects on other parts of your daily life, such as memory and sleep. Cognitive-behavioral therapist Michael Neenan (2018) claims stress is the result of pressures exceeding our ability to cope with them. The causes of workplace stress are not always obvious, and the only way to combat it is to recognize where it is coming from.

Causes of workplace stress could include:

  • Having too many responsibilities.
  • Bad management.
  • Difficult co-workers.
  • Overworked/burnt out.
  • Lack of support/encouragement.
  • Being unclear on roles.
  • Poor working conditions.
  • Unhealthy work-life balance.

Symptoms of workplace stress include:

  • Loss of memory.
  • Headaches/sore muscles.
  • Wired at night.
  • Being irritable/short-tempered.
  • Poor concentration.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Fatigue.
  • Not feeling committed or motivated to your job.
  • Feeling overwhelmed or unable to switch off.

How to incorporate self-care into work life:

Emotions are biological signals to nudge us in the right direction that we tend to ignore. Negative emotions are a call to action – we are supposed to listen to these and do something about them to reduce those negative feelings. To deny negative emotions is to deny literal negative feedback from our bodies, practically begging us to act.

Sounds simple enough. So why do we constantly ignore our emotional needs when it comes to work?

It’s common to associate self-care as a luxury that can only take place outside of the workplace – a face mask, bubble bath, and glass of wine after a long day. And don’t get me wrong, this method is (from experience) pretty damn effective for a short-term stress release. However, to truly feel fulfillment in our jobs – we have to let go of the idea that well-being can only exist in our personal lives. Self-care comes in many forms and when work takes up a majority of your week, it’s crucial to weave more mundane self-care habits or changes into your day-to-day work routine – whether it looks and feels like self-care or not.

Ensure a healthy work/life balance:

It’s hard to define what the perfect work-life balance looks like, as it’s subjective to everyone. Only you can tell when your work and personal life are or aren’t balanced because when one side takes over, you become stressed or unproductive. Despite the word ‘balance’, it doesn’t mean work and leisure time have to be equal, instead, it’s about making sure you feel content and fulfilled with the time you are designing for both sides. For example, you might view the perfect balance as being home early enough for dinner each night, or even just enough sleep for the next day, whereas someone else might say it’s when they can pay the bills but have enough free time to pursue all 20 of their hobbies (would be nice!).

Whilst many people want to achieve a better work-life balance, it can be easier said than done. Work is just one aspect of our busy lives, and with so many factors to consider, it’s more complicated than just work against leisure. However, there are many overlapping interests – such as wellbeing and leisure, work, and finances. When you create a healthy balance between your job and personal life, everything else seems to fit in around it.

Pause and ask yourself whether you are having to constantly give up important moments/events in your personal life for your job and whether you are committing enough time to things that really matter to you. Are you losing relationships with your loved ones for the sake of this job? If you know this answer is yes, it’s time to reevaluate your priorities and work out what compromises can be made to rebalance the sides, such as integrating your responsibilities or cutting down your hours.

Setting boundaries:

Yes! Sure! I can definitely do that! You say looking up from your 4th coffee of the morning, reluctantly adding the job to your full calendar. You may think constantly saying yes to people is impressive but, if anything, it can show weakness. One of the biggest workplace self-care methods is knowing and setting your boundaries. These can have such a positive effect on your mental health – reducing stress, allowing more free time, and making you feel more in control at work.

Of course, it can be hard to say no, especially if you are looking for a promotion or to impress your boss/customers. However, you know there is nothing impressive about having to cancel meetings or handing in half-done work because you simply did not have the time. Respecting your capacity to complete tasks allows you to focus on more important work and gives you the ability to complete them to your full potential. Start by bringing in small boundaries to your work life and communicate these professionally. Mute your work calls and emails at the weekend, say no to work or events you don’t have the time or mental energy to take on, prioritize important tasks, and remember that you don’t have to be constantly available to be a reliable member of staff.

Taking time off:

Has it been 5 years since you last took a holiday, or does it just feel like that? One of the best ways to look after your mental health when it comes to work is to give your body and mind a break. Whether that’s jetting off to the sunny Caribbean for 3 weeks or just putting work aside for the weekend to rot in bed, we all deserve (and physically need) a good break from work here and there.

Along with the idea of setting boundaries and having a healthy work-life balance, having days off during a busy week is essential for your well-being. Fatigue-related accidents and excessive hours without proper breaks can be detrimental to our physical and mental health. Long hours can also put strains on our relationships and personal life. As discussed previously, problems arise when work life starts to seep into our home life.

Sometimes, the idea of taking a break when there is ‘so much to do’ is unappealing or even impossible. We forget that, like many things, in order for our minds to function to the best of their ability, we have to recharge them. Taking regular breaks from the daily stress that our jobs might induce is actually the most effective way to keep us stimulated.

We are all legally entitled to time off, and your industrious reluctance to do so is not paying off in the way you think it is. So, commit yourself and book that holiday. Take a few days off to see that friend whose face you can’t even remember.

Whatever you do, just leave that bloody laptop at home!

Getting enough sleep:

We all know how important sleep is for so many aspects of our lives. And yet, the majority of us still refuse to get the 8 hours that have been recommended (and proven to be effective) by the highest-ranking scientists. I suppose it’s not shocking to you that only 29% of the population gets at least 8 hours of sleep…

207,000 working days are lost in the UK every year due to lack of sleep, but do we care? How can we sleep when we just have so much to do!? Have you ever stayed up late to finish something essential only to then be a shell of a person at work the next day and climb back into bed afterward, wasting that entire day of potential work and regretting not going to bed sooner? Along with taking time off work in terms of holidays, our minds need to be recharged overnight.

In the same way that work stress and busy schedules can cause a lack of sleep, that lack of sleep also causes a worse job performance – causing an exhausting cycle that is hard to break. Not only does sleep negatively impact your performance at work, it is also detrimental to your physical health (your immune system and cardiovascular activities, as well as your ability to learn and think).

The increased popularity of working at home has made it easier to blur that all-important line between work and personal hours. Working late into the night and getting up early for work causes neurons in the brain to become overworked – causing slow reactions and emotional drainage. Give yourself a window of wind down before bedtime, giving your mind time to recover from the stress of the day, separating it from your personal time. No one ever regretted having the right amount of sleep. And let’s be real – no one suits bags that big.

The truth about happiness… are we being sold a lie?

The most common misconception about looking after your mental health is that it will make you irreversibly happy. But obviously, nothing can ever be that simple. If there was an easy road to everlasting happiness – surely we would all take it? Mind you, we are humans after all, and we sure as hell don’t like to take the easy route (even if we think we do).

The truth is that there is no easy long-term solution to ‘finding’ happiness. Lots of self-help gurus give out short-term solutions to problems that delay negative emotions – but don’t necessarily diminish them. Is it even possible to combat every negative emotion in our body? The simple answer is NO. Our minds and bodies crave problems and negative emotions to function. Emotional pain can be a good, healthy, and necessary thing; failure teaches us how to avoid the same mistakes. But you know that already, and it doesn’t make failing any easier.

What you might not know is that happiness is largely created by solving problems, it is not an end goal like having enough money to finally get that extension or landing your dream job. Frustratingly the solution to one problem is the creation of another. The good news is, despite what you have been made to believe, having no problems does not result in a life of happiness. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

For example, you might solve your social problems at work by befriending your colleagues, but then you start attending too many social events and the boss notices that your work is lacking. You may solve your weight problems by going to the gym, but now you have to wake up early and spend money on a membership. You might finally have been promoted to your dream position, but now you are overwhelmed with responsibilities you didn’t have before. Problems never stop, they just change or get upgraded. There is, believe it or not, such a thing as having ‘good’ problems. Have you ever heard a rich celebrity complain about a first-world issue and grumble in your head ‘I wish my only concern was that my $75,000 diamond got lost in the bottom of Bora Bora’s crystal-clear water – some of us have to work, you know Kim?’ But actually, we all have the freedom to upgrade our problems into better ones (okay, maybe not quite to the extent of the Kardashians – extreme example).

Denial is one of the most common short-term fixes to being unhappy. We like to blame others for our negative emotions, and this may work in the short term. But denial is not a solution, it only allows us to avoid the root of the problem and makes us miserable in the long term. Instead of passing on blame and wallowing in our problems and longing for a life without them, we must reflect on our actions and on what type of problems we are willing to endure. We will naturally always want more: more money, more validation from our boss, a promotion, etc. Of course, everyone wants the best job with the best pay – but the question to ask yourself is: are you willing to suffer the hardships that come with that? Grueling hours, long commutes, and a load of responsibility. Does the achievement outweigh the struggle?

The word happiness itself is a subjective term – and of course, looks different for everyone. We have all met people who are naturally happier and more content (or at least seem it) in their lives than others. But this idea of finding happiness one day and never looking back is a scam – it’s a journey of ups and downs, a constant, non-linear work of progress, not a destination. It’s not possible to live a pain-free life without any problems, despite the amount of people who we assume live that way. So, instead of longing for a problem-free life, start by instead hoping for a life full of good problems – and, who knows, you might just find yourself crying over your lost diamond earring in the crystal-clear water of Bora Bora too.

The bottom line is to achieve success in your career, you shouldn’t have to sacrifice your mental health. The two work simultaneously. Without feeling mentally stimulated, success in your job is unlikely. Granted, it’s harder to feel mentally stimulated when you feel like a failure at your job. Your mind and body know more than you think you do; so, pay attention to those signs. If you know you are neglecting your health to focus on your career, and you can’t see a way out anytime soon – it’s time to reevaluate your values (and your job).

The truth is, your mental well-being is the most profitable thing you can invest in, and when you do, it will pay off in ways you didn’t expect it to – your job will feel more enjoyable, and therefore you will want to work hard. You will generally be in a better mood, and your work relationships will flourish. You will have more time to yourself; therefore, you can start that hobby you keep putting off (or maybe just finally read the book you got for Christmas in 2020…)

You may feel at times like you are constantly treading water to stay above water while everyone around you is seamlessly floating, but it’s not true. Out of all the people who seem to have their life together, chances are 50% of them have had to consistently prioritize their mental wellbeing to get there and the other 50%… are most likely pretty good at pretending.

However, it’s important to remember that a life without problems does not exist, and wishing for one is self-sabotaging. What you have to consider instead, is what you are willing to struggle for. What work-related problems are you happy to solve? Is the reward worth the struggle? And what problems are drowning you in stress and spilling out into your personal life, disrupting that sacred work-life balance? Once you start asking yourself these questions – you are already halfway there.

As we know, nothing in life is permanent; people and jobs can come and go. But one thing that is with you until the end every second before that? You. Your health. Your mind. And that is an investment worth more than any job could offer.

Guest blog by Millie Pace – a creative writing student at Napier University

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