If ever there were a time when life required attention to mental health, this is it--with 75 percent of American workers believing on-the-job stress is worse than it was a generation ago, 40 percent say their job is very or extremely stressful, according to the American Institute of Stress. And 18 percent of American workers admit to experiencing mental health disorder symptoms within the last month, with 1 out of 5 (46.6 million) Americans suffering mental illness overall. So you're most certainly not alone if you're feeling like it's not all peachy.
The good news is, more leaders are recognizing the situation we're in and are conspicuously working toward better wellbeing. And on top of any collective, business-wide initiatives, there are a lot of proactive steps you can take as an individual to protect your state of mind.
1. Set clear boundaries.
This can be tough because you probably don't want conflict, hassle or to look selfish. But when you don't have clear boundaries and limits for what you will and will not do, it's easier for others to dump work on you and for you to lose a sense of balance and control. Use the word no often and with purpose, and advocate for your own personal space and privacy. Boundaries also apply to workplace gossip and the pressure to play office politics.
2. Tell the truth.
Even one fib can create stress, and lies tend to snowball. The more honest you are and the more integrity you have, the more others will trust you, the fewer conflicts you'll have and the better you'll feel about sticking to your morals.
3. Check biases at the door.
Fears of what other people will think or how they'll react are often completely unfounded, as are stereotypes. Ruminating on them can cause conflicts and inhibit positive behaviors you might take. Always get the facts and don't assume.
4. Ask for help.
The temptation is to stay mum when you don't know or are overwhelmed for fear of looking incompetent. But this creates a worry that you're missing something or won't do the job well enough. If you admit you need a hand, you cut that worry off and can learn at the same time.
5. Get clarifications and rationales.
Just like when you need help, if something is ambiguous or you don't grasp the "why" behind what you're doing, you can have anxiety that you're doing your work improperly and will end up judged for it. Asking for details and the thought processes behind decisions can reassure you that you're on the right track and build a better sense of purpose.
6. Fuel yourself right.
A wealth of science shows that proper diet ties closely to mental and general physical function. You need to eat well to get not just the energy that's required for cognitive work, but also the nutrients necessary to maintain the delicate chemical production and balance that controls your moods. If your cafeteria choices are often full of less nutritious processed foods and don't take personal needs into account (e.g., nuts, sodium, sugar, gluten), brown bag it. Eat away from your desk, ideally with others and/or outside in nature, and don't skip lunch just because you get busy.
7. Call out gaslighting and other forms of abuse through proper channels.
As the old saying goes, you need to teach people how to treat you. Power plays, manipulation, passive-aggression, and other tactics are toxic--don't tolerate them. Have a polite but frank discussion with the offender about their behaviors, keeping in mind that they might not even be aware of how they're hurting you. If they don't change their ways, report the issue through whatever HR protocols your company has in place.
7. Look for varied projects that highlight your strengths while remedying your weaknesses.
These types of projects reassure you that you've got great skills and talents, providing wins you can feel great about. At the same time, if you tackle some of your weaknesses little by little, working your way up to harder tasks, you'll have less anxiety about your competence, too. And if there's a lot of diversity in what you're doing, the projects will break up the monotony that quickly can kill your joy.
8. Reach out to others.
Interacting with others influences our sense of worth and purpose, and research shows that people with strong social connections have better health. Network, join a group, volunteer, mentor--whatever floats your boat, find people you can help and who can support and teach you.
9. Work in intervals.
Whether you use the Pomodoro technique or consider the brain's natural 90-minute cycles, take breaks. This gives you a chance to recharge and reflect, which actually benefits productivity. But more importantly, it teaches you to be able to pull away from a job, that you're more important than the work.
10. Perform an act of kindness.
Doing something nice for someone can give you a sense of purpose that can color the entire day. It also can be contagious. When you personally model acts of kindness, it prompts others to pay it forward, which influences the culture and morale for your entire business.
11. Speak up about expectations.
Everyone's limits and goals are different. That said, if you have a reason to believe that a work expectation isn't realistic or healthy for you, explain what you need. This doesn't just include a workload that is too heavy or quick timeframes. It can include expectations about interpersonal relationships, too.
12. Plan well.
The unexpected is going to happen. Roll with the punches. But the more organized you are and the more you look ahead, the fewer things will catch you off guard to stress you out.
13. Aim for your best, not perfection.
By far the most toxic work belief in American business culture is the idea that there's no room for failure, a concept that continues to drive people beyond their limits even as leaders claim they accept mistakes. You don't have to be error free. You just have to compete with yourself and strive to do better tomorrow than you did today. Fess up, fix it if you can and move on. No one, after all, will etch "They forgot the 3:00 p.m. meeting" on your tombstone.
To close, remember, you can be your own advocate. But you needn't fight alone. If you need to talk, find a licensed therapist and get the help you absolutely deserve and are entitled to.