Managing Workplace Stress & Mental Health

Posted by Amina AlTai on

When I first started my career, I was just like everybody else:  I kept my head down and worked hard.  I'd only sparingly use my vacation days, or hoard them to splurge on a long week away in Southeast Asia or Europe.  But the months, and sometimes years, in between vacations took their toll and work-related stress, deadlines and adulthood became a sure bet for anxiety and burnout.  And as much as I longed for a day at home under the covers to mentally reassemble myself, mental health days weren't something that were supported nor widely talked about. I just kept on trucking... until I could truck no more.    

Over a decade later, I'm no longer shy about the "M" word -- mental health -- and I take breaks often and with pride. Burnout is a very real scenario in our always-on culture and executives are now acknowledging that it is negatively impacting their business’ bottom line in a variety of ways.

At a high level, it increases health costs and impairs productivity—which can have significant implications for our overall economy. According to the Harvard Business School, unmanaged workplace stress accounts for 120,000 deaths annually (!) and 8% of national healthcare spending.  Couple that with the fact that 18.2% of the US adult population suffers from mental illness such as depression, and we have a real issue that needs addressing at the corporate level.  

Despite all of this, many corporations fail to recognize the importance of mental health and its link to performance.  In fact, a recent survey from a UK healthcare company found that 70% of employers didn't believe that stress or anxiety was a valid excuse for time off -- even though 25% of those surveyed had suffered some the same symptoms themselves. Mind-blowing.   

Which begs the question: What can we do to meaningfully address the issues of stress and burnout that result from our “always-on” culture? 

1. Negotiate: If you're starting a new job or getting promoted within in an existing organization, use your negotiating power to ask for more PTO. If your company doesn't offer mental health days, ask for more vacation days or sick days.  The best time to ask for what you want is when you have leverage.  

2. Make work your happy place: Decorate your workspace to reflect the best of your life.  Display pictures of your friends and loved ones.  Put up your vision board.  Bring in an aromatherapy candle.  Do whatever you need (within reason) to make your desk and your space feel like a happy place. 

3. Find quiet space: Offices can be full of ringing telephones, clacking keyboards and heated conversations; if you're sensitive to distractions, it can make your day even more stressful.  If you don't have your own office, book out a conference room from time to time to allow yourself space and time to breathe, meditate and have some alone time.  If work overall feels too hectic, work with your manager on defining your work from home policy.  

4. Take breaks: Productivity experts generally recommend the 90/10 rule—that is a ten minute break for every ninety minutes of focused activity.  In those ten minutes, go for a walk, clear your head or eat some brain-boosting foods to support your wellbeing and output.   

5. Take vacations: Over 50% of the US workforce finishes the year with unused vacation days.  However, all the data suggests that time away from work is beneficial for your mind and for your work productivity.  A recent study of 481 US adults found that those who used their vacation days performed better, were more productive, and more satisfied with their jobs—not to mention happier.  

6. Enlist the support of HR: Many corporations support employee wellness programs these days.  However, if your workplace isn't one of them, talk to your HR manager about the ways you'd like to be supported in your office.  That could be anything from workshops, group fitness classes to an overall policy reform.  You never know what can change can occur until you ask.  

mental health PTO workplace wellness

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