We will all go through tough times in our lives, where we struggle and need extra support. Quite a number will suffer from mental illness and have to deal with depression, anxiety, or other diagnoses. How we are affects us in all aspects of life, so we don’t get to leave our problems at home. We spend most of our day at work, so it makes sense for employers to support our mental health. In this article I will look at how we can promote mental wellbeing in the workplace.

What is mental health and how does it differ from mental illness?

Mental health is not just the absence of mental illness.

It is defined as a state of wellbeing 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 his or her community. (WHO, 2007)

Mental illness can be defined as the experiencing of severe and distressing psychological symptoms to the extent that normal functioning is seriously impaired.

Examples of such symptoms include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depressed mood
  • Obsessional thinking
  • Delusions and hallucinations

Some form of professional medical help is usually needed for recovery/ management, this help may take the form of counselling or psychotherapy, drug treatment and/or lifestyle changes. Even where drug therapy is prescribed, my recommendation would be to get psychological support to help you to make the lifestyle and perhaps cognitive and behavioural changes that are needed to stay well in the long-term.

As we can see from the definition above, mental health is a holistic concept, involving the wellbeing of the person as a whole; socially, physically, emotionally. It is important for each of us to look after our mental health and maintain a mental fitness level, no different than the need to look after our body and physical fitness. Here are some simple tips to guide you on improving your mental health at work and in life:

  • Diet: 20-25% of our fuel (what we eat and drink) goes to fuel our brain. What we eat has a huge impact on our ability to think clearly, stay positive, not get too caught up in negative thought, affects our energy levels, emotional intelligence – everything. Take a proper lunch break and eat a well-balanced meal to support your ability to work well.
  • Exercise: we all need to exercise regularly, not just to keep in physical shape but also to keep in mental shape. It’s free and its something you can do today to boost your mood. Why not take a brisk walk during lunch? A breath of fresh air can boost mood and clear the cobwebs.
  • Sleep: essential to our mood and wellbeing, if you are struggling to get to sleep or stay asleep I recommend trying a Sleep Meditation (1000’s free online). Listen every night as you go asleep for 6 weeks and you will have trained your mind to relax, get a more refreshing sleep and you’ll feel the benefits right through the day.
  • Meditation/Mindfulness: there is huge evidence now to show the benefits of a daily meditation practice, even 10 minutes a day can make the vital difference. Join a local class and give it a fair go – most people find it quite difficult to get into the practice so having a good teacher can really help. During your workday, stop regularly and take a moment just to breathe, stretch, and switch your attention to your senses (for instance become aware of your feet on the ground, body temperature, sensations, look around, listen to sounds – just be present).
  • Relationships: Make time to connect with other people. Real people, face to face. Connection is a basic human need and without it we start to crack up. Relationships are key to our long-term happiness and longevity; so take time to invest in your relationships with time and effort – you’ll reap the rewards.
  • Social Support: with a world population of 7 billion plus, we’re not born to be hermits. We all go through tough times – don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help. Allowing yourself to be vulnerable and ask for help also makes us more approachable and gives the message to others that it’s ok for them to do the same when they need help. Talk to a friend, a colleague, a doctor, a therapist. Don’t suffer alone. Many workplaces now have Mental Health First Aiders, or may have an EAP service with free counselling. Use the supports that are there for you.
  • Boundaries: try to keep to your recommended work hours. Its important that we have boundaries around our time so we have clear time off, otherwise the brain is switched on all the time and we end up stressed and burned out. Switch off your work phone at home, don’t look at emails, turn off notifications. Schedule time for exercise and for fun and make time for your life outside of work too. Funnily enough, this will actually help your work performance too!

Looking after your mental health is a little like looking after your dental health – you spend time every day, possibly twice a day, brushing your teeth; in the same way we need to spend a few minutes every day to look after our mental health.