10 ways to prioritize your mental health during work
LAST UPDATED: Sep 16, 2021
5 MIN READ
HERE'S WHAT WE'LL COVER
Employees are working longer hours than they ever have, and the effects are starting to show.
Higher absentee levels, abandoned vacation time, and reduced productivity are all byproducts of an overtaxed workforce. Prioritizing mental health has taken on new relevance in today’s corporate world, though many wonder how to do this amid strict deadlines, unmanageable workloads, and overbooked personal lives.
Many companies have begun integrating policies to support a healthy work-life balance, indicating an acknowledgment that the most productive employees are often the most supported and least burnt out. These initiatives include robust wellness programs and educational offerings or expanded staffing to manage bandwidths.
But even if your employer hasn't rolled out programs like these, there are simple steps each of us can take to protect our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. Patient-driven telehealth company Ro compiled a list of 10 ways employees can prioritize their mental health while working, using information from health experts, human resource managers, and counselors.
These simple steps are designed to help prevent some of the major side effects of increased workloads and unending workdays, whether anxiety and stress or depression. Keep reading to learn more about setting clear boundaries and carving out time for yourself during every workday.
1. Set clear limits and boundaries
In a survey of 7,500 full-time employees, a full 44% reported feeling burned out sometimes while nearly a quarter reported feeling burned out always or often, according to a 2018 Gallup study. Limits and boundaries in the workplace are especially important for those who work from home, as the lines between work and home life often blur.
Setting boundaries can be as simple as making sure not to connect your phone to your work email or to avoid checking work emails between certain evening hours to shift focus to family or personal time. Realizing when and how to delegate responsibilities is also a necessity when boundary-setting.
2. Take a lunch break
Breaks are an important way to recharge during the workday, and no break is more important than the lunch hour (or half-hour). A Tork survey released in 2021 found that nearly 40% of workers take breaks occasionally, rarely, or never. There's a major gender divide, too: Women are twice as likely as men to not take breaks during the workday.
Many say they feel guilty stepping away, but the benefits of a lunch break are clear and include an increase in productivity, a boost to creativity, and a reduction in stress. Not taking lunch breaks can actually have a negative impact on employees and employers.
3. Learn to say no
Not only does learning to say no help to set boundaries and limits, but it also helps to prioritize essential work tasks. Employees often overextend themselves at work by saying yes to everything, which can lead to burnout.
Those who have trouble saying no are more likely to suffer from burnout, stress, and depression, according to research from the University of California in San Francisco in 2013. With so much work and so little time, employees have to learn that saying no can not only be OK—it can be one of the most effective ways to prioritize mental health at work.
Some tips to saying no properly include being polite and brief, but firm; being honest; offering an alternative; and remembering that saying no does not make you a lazy or bad employee.
4. Get out of your chair and move
Many corporate workplaces have gyms or offer weekly workout classes like yoga. For those who work from home, there are apps featuring everything from tai chi to five-minute power workouts, and many offer free trials.
Sitting behind a desk is a sedentary activity, and lack of movement has all sorts of negative effects on not just physical health, but mental health as well. Being sedentary can increase the odds of depression and elevate anxiety levels. Doing a workout is not the only way to incorporate movement into your workday—taking a brief walk around the block works just as well.
5. Use your well-earned vacation time
Each year, North Americans work harder and longer. Nearly 800 million vacation days were left unused by American employees in 2018, up 9% from 2017, according to research from the U.S. Travel Association, Oxford Economics, and Ipsos.
The same research found that those who plan their vacations use more vacation time to travel and are happier in several areas, including their personal relationships and overall well-being. Either way, vacation time is an important way to recharge and find enjoyment outside of the workplace.
6. Decorate your workspace
One study published in 2013 by the Journal of Environmental Psychology found a correlation between decorated workspaces and heightened productivity and energy.
Bringing a small lamp from home or a few favorite books to display and read on your lunch break offers a way to make office surroundings more comfortable. Inspiring quotes, color-coded accessories, family pictures, or a plant can all help to boost creativity and productivity while elevating your mood and making your workspace feel more like home.
7. Get to know your colleagues
While co-workers don’t have to be best friends, it is important to foster positive relationships at work. Those who engage in small talk perform better on cognitive tests and showed an increase in executive functioning, according to a study published in 2010 by researchers at the University of Michigan.
Whether making small talk when getting that morning cup of coffee or chatting up a colleague while waiting for the 4 p.m. conference call to begin, having a brief discussion can bolster mood and even serve as a small break from the monotony of the workday. Establishing workplace relationships can improve overall quality of life according to a study conducted by Globoforce and published in 2014. That study also found that having a work friend increased workers’ commitment to their employer.
8. Listen to music
There are several advantages to throwing on the radio or streaming a well-thought-out playlist at work. Listening to music helps with focus, absorption of information, reduces stress and anxiety, and boosts mood, all of which help to improve mental health. It also stimulates creativity and brings an increase in productivity, though not all music is good for all types of work.
Popular music may interfere with complicated tasks, while classical music can help with focus. One important rule to remember when it comes to listening to music is that not everyone has the same taste. Avoid upsetting co-workers by bringing in earbuds to listen at a respectful volume.
9. Take advantage of educational opportunities
Whether it’s a professional development course offered online or through your workplace or a college course your company will reimburse, continuing education opportunities keep the mind sharp and help sustain interest at work by offering additional knowledge. This increase in knowledge often offers opportunities for advancement.
Approximately 50% of employers offer some type of undergraduate assistance, and 53% offer assistance for graduate degrees, according to a 2017 Employee Benefits Survey by the Society for Human Resource Management. Many companies have corporate accounts with online services like Coursera, which provides educational enrichment through online courses and certifications. To figure out what companies offer, employees should reach out to human resources.
10. Get organized
Studies have shown that clutter can contribute to heightened anxiety and stress, decreased productivity, and feelings of losing control. A few minutes a day devoted to organization can work wonders in the workplace, and filing systems don’t have to be complex to be effective.
The effects of clutter on the body and mind are so significant that they can even cause people to overindulge in food and create other unhealthy habits. An Express Employment Professionals study found that disorganization causes significant loss of actual work time, with 57% of participants admitting to losing six work hours per week due to disorganization.
If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.