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Mental Health in the Workplace
The World Health Organization defines positive mental health as “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community. Employees with good mental health will perform better in their work.”
Work is excellent for both our mental and physical health. Research has consistently shown that good quality work can boost and protect health.
Features of working life that are known to promote mental health include:
• Being valued at work
• Having meaningful work
• Being able to make decisions on issues that affect you
• Being adequately trained for the work that you do
• Having the resources you need to do the work
• Having a job that is well designed and not overloaded
• Having work that is well organised in terms of work schedules and time off
A further positive element of the workplace concerns organisational culture, which can be supportive of mental health and wellbeing. Elements of culture such as management and communication style can contribute to positive mental wellbeing. In addition, positive management practices in relation to such areas as participation in decision making and providing timely and supportive feedback can contribute positively to employee wellbeing. Another vital element is the promotion of a positive health and safety culture. Social support in the workplace is also essential – colleagues can help individuals share, cope with and overcome personal problems.
Stress is not always a bad thing. Some stress helps one stay focused, motivated and meet new challenges in the workplace. However, when positive work features are missing or inadequate we find that satisfaction declines at work and consequently mental health is adversely affected. When stress exceeds one’s ability to cope, it stops being helpful and starts causing damage to one’s physical and mental health.
‘Burn out’ is currently a very popular diagnosis which is mostly used in the workplace, particularly by self-diagnosis. People like the diagnosis as it implies an excellent work ethic and makes the experience less personal. Whereas it is an extremely helpful concept, reflecting contemporary unhealthy work circumstances and ways to improve them, it can also sometimes camouflage and distract from the more complex clinical picture of a given client. This means that it is very important that we give each presenting client particular attention to understand their particular psychological profile and differentiate burnout from more serious mental health concerns.
Christina Maslach is an eminent “burn out” researcher. She defines “burn out” by the presence of three symptoms:
• emotional, mental and physical exhaustion (complete breakdown),
• losing interest and motivation for work and
• being inefficient at the work place.
At CHS we often see clients who are experiencing stress in the workplace. These clients seek our help at different stages. Some are just starting to feel overwhelmed by work demands; others are bordering on burnout and others come to us when they have already ‘burnt out’ and are physically and emotionally unable to return to work. We try to help them at each stage.
Typically we find that many young and ambitious employees will overwork, ignoring work life balance so that work becomes too central. This is often to the detriment of social life and even adequate self-care. Often these ambitious individuals will forgo social engagements, exercise and other necessary parts of daily life in order to work unreasonably long hours. Some work up to 18 hours a day. This is obviously not realistic or even humanly possible to maintain.
Some of the warning signs that we as clinicians at CHS look for are the following:
• Feeling anxious or depressed
• Anger and irritability
• Sense of meaningless, pointlessness and loss of sense of purpose
• Feelings of being unappreciated
• Low energy /exhaustion
• Anxiety, particularly feelings of panic
• Memory problems
• Concentration problems
• Stomach problems
• Social withdrawal
• Loss of sex drive
• Using alcohol or drugs to cope
How to prevent burnout?
Some useful tips to stay mentally healthy at work and prevent burnout include the following:
• Clarify your job description – ask your supervisor for an updated description of your duties
• Ask for new duties if work is becoming tired and has lost its challenge
• Prioritize tasks, tackling high priority or more challenging tasks first
• Break overwhelmingly large projects into small steps that are more manageable
• Delegate responsibility and don’t try to do everything yourself
• Be willing to compromise
• Adjust perfectionistic or unrealistic work standards which set you up to fall short
• Change negative focus which can drain your energy and motivation and try to see what is positive about your work
• View work tasks as challenges and not as difficult obstacles to overcome
• Ask for help by turning to your co-workers for support
• Create a balanced schedule, making time for yourself to regain your energy reserves and prevent becoming depleted and plan regular breaks
• Don’t over-commit yourself to doing work that you cannot manage
• Take time off if burn out seems inevitable and make sure you recharge your batteries
• Support your health with exercise - make time to exercise because activity that raises your heartrate and makes you sweat is a very effective way of lifting your mood, increasing energy, sharpening focus and relaxing both mind and body
• Make considered choices regarding food such as minimizing sugar and refined carbs
• Reducing your intake of food that can adversely affect your mood such as alcohol or caffeine
• Eat more omega-3 fatty acids to give your mood a boost
• Avoid nicotine and drink alcohol in moderation
• Turn off screens an hour before bedtime - light emitted from phones and tablets suppress your body’s production of melatonin and may disrupt sleep
• Replace stimulating activities with calming activities before bedtime
If you are feeling overwhelmed and exhausted to the point that you are no longer able to make the necessary changes to prevent a crash, you can call CHS to set up a confidential appointment with one of our therapists on (+32) 02 647 67 80.
Nicole Josephson MA MSc
Member of the CHS Clinical Team