In the UK, Mental Health Awareness month has just ended and in the US Mental Health Awareness month is also at a close. As an advocate of this topic and, in particular, practical ways you can look after your mind; I wanted draw upon my own experiences and explore how corporates literally need to change their own thinking around the subject of Mental Health in the workplace.
In 2013 I began the slippery slope towards a nervous breakdown (the subject of another blog post) whilst working in a highly demanding corporate role. As much of my own personal challenges were centred around anxiety and a very poor sense of self worth; having to talk to my HR department about these issues was a massive demon to confront. Consequently when I finally did make the step; I had already left it way too long. Please don’t make the same mistakes as me. Read on.
Utter the phrase “Mental Health” and you’ll still many HR professionals breaking into a cold sweat and running for the hills. Having had first hand experience of how poorly and insensitively this subject can be approached by employers; I deliberated long and hard about writing this set of posts (for fear of being seen to be “corporate bashing” or simply looking bitter). Indeed I was angry/bitter/frustrated for a significant time after I left my last role but sooner or later you just learn to let that shit go and move on. Given that; I’m hopeful that I can approach this topic with an unbiased degree of objectivity, throw open the doors and just let some fresh air in.
This series of four monthly blogs is designed to get both employees and employers thinking about how they can shift their behaviours in the work environment and encourage a climate of positive mental health. But before we get onto the role employers need to play, part one and two of this series, deal with those things you can do from the absolute get-go, to protect your mental health and avoid a crisis later.
#1 Be Custodian of your Time. Now listen to this and listen well because it is one of the most important pieces of advice that I can give to you and if you honour it, you will truly be protecting your sanity. Now, I can take a fair guess that anyone who works in a corporate role has a contract that is based upon “hours necessary to do the job” as opposed to a set weekly amount. Basically this gives employers license (should they wish) to run roughshod all over your personal time, give you an unreasonable workload and bombard you with emails out of hours. Trust me, I know. In most of my field-based roles I routinely worked from 7am sending emails before getting in my car and driving hundreds of miles, before getting back home and then working on reports and emails late into the night. It was just what you did and was endemic across the industry and every single employer I worked for in a field-based role. Just when you thought that you’d gotten everything done, the red light started flashing on your BlackBerry at 11pm and there was an email from your Boss, asking for yet another report (or criticising one you’d done) and you would fall into bed unable to sleep because your brain was still whirring and you felt stressed out.
This is total and utter madness for many reasons but here are the most important ones. Firstly, a big part of mental health is tied up in our identity, purpose and sense of self worth. If you have no life outside of work because you are always “on” then you are headed for serious issues with your relationships, sanity and well-being. If all you are is your job then you’ll soon be a very lonely and unfulfilled individual. I’ve been that person and – by the way – you’re a total buzz-kill. You need time in the evenings to “wind-down” and focus on things that you enjoy – outside of work. Things that bring you joy and feed your soul. Whether it’s attending a class, spending time with your kids, pets or going for a run – do something that is “for you”. Otherwise you will lose a chunk of your weekend in just trying to decompress and won’t enter the new week refreshed. And thus begins the slippery slope to burnout. You become stuck on the treadmill and given the rate of knots you’re running at, it’s damn hard to get off.
Secondly, it is down to you to set boundaries in your life whether it is in a job, relationship or otherwise. This is no more pertinent than when it comes to your time and the value you place upon it. If you don’t set some house rules from the start, you can fully expect your work colleagues to trample all over them. And that’s not them being horrible by the way; that’s just human nature.
Yes, on the surface you might have a great salary package but is it so great if you total up the hours you actually work per week? Is that the value you place upon yourself? If you have been working since 7am, it is perfectly reason to turn off your computer or switch off your phone at 6pm should you so wish and without feeling guilty. Yes, there will always be exceptions – the end of a sales period or a report that has a deadline – but they should be just that – exceptions. It’s hard to believe but your employer will not cease to exist should you decide not to work past 7pm. I know, what a shocker. People will soon get the message if you do not answer your phone or respond beyond a certain time and they will just have to deal with that. Bad luck on them if they have nothing else to do quite frankly. Your company does not own you 24 hours a day, so don’t ever give it the impression it does, by being dismissive over your personal time. It is your responsiblity and your responsibiluty alone to be custodian of your time: not that of your employer.
#2 Be Assertive. This is such an important skill, I believe they should teach it in schools. Assertiveness is the ability to communicate your wants and needs in a calm, confident and unambiguous manner, without the need for confrontation. Whether it is asking for a pay-rise or simply getting your viewpoint heard, this behaviour will have many advantages in the workplace. Your colleagues will not only respect you but will value your contributions, efforts and time much more. Most importantly; they won’t take advantage of you (intentionally or otherwise).
Unfortunately, much of the British psyche is tied up politeness and “keeping a stiff upper lip” (i.e. putting a lid on your desires and emotions) and this means very often we end up putting the demands and feelings of others before ourselves. This is no more prevalent than at work and where we don’t want to be seen as ‘selfish’ or ‘unhelpful’. That’s all very well and good but this outlook does not lend itself to good mental health or living an authentic life.
Here’s why. If you continually just “put up and shut up” in ANY situation (personal life, work or otherwise) you will not be living life on your terms but conversely, those of others – your employer included. Behaving in this way will zap you of your self worth and leave you feeling inwardly angry, bitter and frustrated. Generally speaking, people who do this for a long period of time, end up reverting to a choice of two other unhelpful behaviours – aggressiveness or passive aggressiveness. This means they will either end up having a total meltdown and verbally lashing out or alternatively; become a smiling assassin (someone who outwardly seems agreeable but behind closed doors will do everything they can to sabotage the people or situations they are unhappy about). I’m pretty certain you’ll agree these are not people you’d like to spend time with or work with yourself, so don’t become one and learn how to be assertive in all areas of your life.
Being a martyr serves no purpose whatsoever. There is a very good reason why they tell you to put your own oxygen mask on in a crisis. Put simply, you cannot put yourself in a position to help anyone, if you don’t get your own side of the street tidy first.
#3 Know your motivation. Is this really the job for you? Is this really the industry for you? Are these the people you want as your colleagues? Seriously, is it? Are they? Here’s the thing – that promotion you want (and have worked so hard for), might look great on paper, carry a great salary and rewards package but it still doesn’t mean you’ll actually enjoy doing it. You can have all the experience to do a particular job but not the mindset, motivation or personality and that is a big problem. And yet companies still consistently concentrate on skill set (which can be taught) and not on whether the individual is a good fit and will be – god forbid – happy in that job.
By way of an explanation: there were certain roles I did in corporate that I truly loved and others I did not. I just blindly threw myself into everything that came my way (without really knowing what I was aiming for), working ridiculously hard and going for promotions whenever they became available. It was only when I finally exited the corporate environment altogether, that I realised I’m not actually a very good employee! I was great in jobs that were new or hadn’t previously existed (and that I could creatively use my industry experience in) but I felt stifled in jobs where the approach was very much a “prescriptive” one and with little room for breaking the mould.
Get to know your primary motivation. I guarantee that the things that will keep you fulfilled in a job, will not be the car, the salary or the hotel honours points and air miles. Primarily, what will keep you happy is feeling you have a purpose in your role and that you are making a difference. Did you know that a sense of purpose is one of the top five basic fundamental human needs? So, before you take any job, make sure you ask yourself the difficult questions. Otherwise you might just end up some place you really don’t want to be….and without an obvious exit strategy.
#4 Establish Morning and Evening Rituals. Just as you power up your ‘phone when it is low on battery, it’s important that you recharge your own batteries and if you find a way to do this on a daily basis; you will make a big step to avoiding burnout. Having an am ritual will help set the scene and focus your mind for the day ahead. The purpose of an evening routine will be in allowing yourself to slow things down and calm the mind before you go to sleep.
My own personal recommendation would be to meditate for at least ten minutes in the morning and before you start your working day. Allowing yourself to sit quietly and focus on your breathing for a short time every day will control your mental chatter and allow your brain to tackle problems much more efficiently. Extending your meditation for longer will enable you to include affirmations and visualisations, which in turn will embed themselves into your subconscious. This action makes your ambitions and goals much more deeply-rooted and as a result; you are more likely to find ways of making them happen.
But they don’t call meditation a practice for nothing. Initially, you will find it extremely difficult and your mind will wander – but if you stick with it, I promise you, the benefits will be significant and you will find yourself wanting to meditate for longer periods of time. Almost all successful business leaders have a meditation practice of some sort (Tony Robbins calls it ‘priming’) and there are quite literally thousands of guided tutorials available on You Tube, so you’ll have no problems finding one that works for you.
If this whole meditation thing sound a bit woo-woo for you, then just sit quietly with your cup of tea or coffee (no tech) and simply visualise the day ahead. Ultimately, what we are looking to avoid here is simply charging into your day like the proverbial bull in the china shop. This is all about setting aside a few minutes in the morning, in order to centre yourself and think about how you want the next sixteen or so hours to unfold. Put like that, doesn’t it make perfect sense?
In terms of an evening ritual; we want to establish a period of thirty minutes to one hour before going to bed and to actively wind down for the day, without distractions such as phones, tablets or TV. So ditch anything – reading material included – that is going to stimulate your grey matter and keep you awake once the lights go out. This is particularly important to ‘phones and tablets with ‘blue light’.
Your evening routine could be taking a bath, doing a meditation reflecting on your day and what you were grateful for (don’t dwell on negatives) or both. Again, there are some great guided meditations for bedtime which focus specifically on gratitude and bringing the day to a positive close. Allowing yourself to “power down” gradually will set you on the path to a much more restful sleep and a more positive outlook when you awaken .
Try to ensure you have set times for rising and retiring – it will be much easier to ‘programme’ your mind and body and get into patterns that work for you.
#5. Be present and ditch the tech. Your ‘phone is not an extension of you and if it is, you cannot be present in your personal interactions with people. So ask yourself – “Do I really need to take this ‘phone into my meeting?”. If you are constantly checking your mobile throughout the day; you are attacking your brain with stimulus from multiple directions, which in itself, is highly stressful.
Give yourself set times in the day to check and respond to emails, texts or ‘phone calls and stick to them. Working in this way will make you much more effective and less prone to go off at tangents because you will be focused on whatever is your priority at that time. Whether it is a meeting or a date night dinner, put the ‘phone away and be present for the person or persons opposite you. I guarantee they will notice the difference it makes and consequently they are much more likely to treat you as a priority.
This goes for bedtime and when you wake up – only on these occasions YOU are the main event. Put yourself first at the beginning and end of the day and do not look at your ‘phone for at least thirty minutes when you awake and leave it out of the bedroom completely when you go to sleep. This is your ‘me’ time so don’t tolerate interruptions.
I really hope you found this blog post helpful. Next month we’ll explore five more ways to prevent burnout from the beginning but if you really like what we’ve covered here, can I suggest that you follow Arianna Huffington who is pretty much re-writing the rule book on work-life balance and how to thrive in life.
Live well. Laney x