A shift is happening in the way we talk about mental health at work. Employers are waking up to the fact that mental health goes beyond the treatment of mental health disorders and are including preventative mental health care as part of their overall employee wellness initiatives and benefits.
This is good news, for sure, and it leaves many of us asking, what exactly is mental health and how do I protect my mental health in and outside of work.
What Is Mental Health?
Mental health is the combination of your mental and emotional state. Your mental state refers to your ability to think clearly and make good decisions, while your emotional state refers to your ability to cope with and manage emotions, and your ability to have positive relationships. Together, they shape how you experience and react to the world around you.
Mental health isn’t simply a question of treating illness. Like taking care of your physical health, caring for your mental health means keeping your mind and emotions in good shape.
Let’s look at an example. Mel (they/them) is a mid-level manager for a big tech company. They struggle with their relationship with their boss, often getting annoyed with their boss’ communication style. Mel carries this stress home with them, complaining to their friends about what the boss did that day, and jumping on Slack after hours to complain to their colleagues. Mel has trouble falling asleep and often wakes up anxious in the middle of the night, leaving them tired and unmotivated the next day. They are considering quitting the job that they worked very hard to get.
In this example, Mel’s coping mechanisms increase their stress level and could affect their mental health, potentially leading to illnesses such as anxiety, depression, and insomnia.
So, how can Mel protect their mental health so that they can be less stressed and feel happier and healthier at work, regardless of what their boss is doing? There are three simple strategies that we all can do to help protect our mental health.
Don't Complain, Clear Instead
Thorny emotions (anger, frustration, fear) are like steam in an Instant Pot—necessary and helpful, but if you don’t release them fully, you’ll get burned. Complaining does not release emotions. Instead, it keeps emotions stuck inside. Clearing, however, allows emotions to release from your mind and body.
Here’s the difference. When you complain, you talk about the other person or situation and how wrong they are. “He’s such a jerk because he talked over me in the meeting.” When you clear, you get to the heart of what’s bothering you by expressing how the other person or situation made you feel. “I was trying to tell the team my idea and he talked over me. It made me feel unvalued and like I’m not an important part of the team.”
Create a Buffer Between Work and Home
Work from home and 24/7 communication channels have all but demolished the buffers we used to have between work and home. Many of us no longer have commutes to signal to our brains that work is done for the day. But that doesn’t mean you can’t create a new way to switch off work.
To create a buffer between work and home, develop an end-of-work ritual, like changing your clothes or walking around the block, before moving into your personal time. You can also create a buffer for going back into work. If you are tempted to check your work email before bed, make it a rule that you must first walk around the block. This will make the decision to check email after hours more intentional.
Assume the Best, Not the Worst
Part of our brain wants us to assume the worst. Whether it’s about our colleague’s intentions or what’s going to happen in tomorrow’s meeting, our thoughts often lead us down the rabbit hole of negativity, which can impact our mood and stress level. This happens, in part, because of the way our brains have evolved. The good news is that you have control over what thoughts you choose to engage with. You can choose to recognize that you are assuming the worst and ask yourself, “What would assuming the best look like?”
Our post-COVID new normal means we are all trying to find new ways to protect our mental health from the ups and downs of work life. The steps your employer is taking to help you protect your mental health are good but it’s up to you to take control of how you manage your mental health.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Kirsten Bunch is a Certified Mental Fitness and Mental Health Coach who helps create happier and more fulfilled employees and workplaces. Her work has been featured in O, Oprah Magazine and Forbes. Learn how to Reclaim Your Power at Work with this free workbook.