May 15, 2023

Prioritizing mental well-being at work

If you’ve spent time recently around any workplace, social media platform, social gathering — or really just existed — you’ve seen the language of wellness and mental well-being everywhere. Self-care. Mindfulness. Balance. Endorphins. Boundaries. Good disassociating. Bad disassociating. It’s truly inescapable. And yet with the language of mental health permeating our corporate wellness initiatives and even our annual budget line items, many of us feel like it’s harder than ever to feel at peace, especially when we work.

In this piece, I’m going to share some of my thoughts on what is happening to us, and what has led us to this new world of work. I will also introduce a model to help frame why maintaining mental well-being has become more of a challenge and offer suggestions for what we can do to stay calm and connected as we navigate rebalancing work and life.

What is happening to us?

It goes without saying that the last several years have been a bit much, no matter where you live or what your occupation is. Our sense of safety in our homes, public places, workplaces, and frankly in conversations has been completely redefined. We’ve had to get used to spending time alone under the covers with just our thoughts, spend time getting used to interacting again with others’ thoughts, and then figure out how to make that not feel like we just squeezed our brain into a thimble.

In this time period where everything has felt harder and resource scarcity has bobbled in and out of reach, no one has felt that more than those living in the margins. Health inequities breed workplace disadvantages which breed economic setbacks, which brings us right back to health inequities — that includes mental health. According to the CDC, hospitalization rates for mental health crises are much higher than just a few years ago with rates for racial and ethnic minorities up at a significantly higher rate than the average. 

Finally, the impact of what some call “headline stress disorder” cannot be emphasized enough. This phenomenon, where information is fed to us at an increasingly faster rate the more years we live on this earth, is not good for our brains. If you’re like me, you catch yourself wondering why people were not going to therapists and psychiatrists in droves in the early 20th century — and why would they? Their worlds were much smaller, and the amount of information their brains took in was consistent with the thousands of years before them, which matches our biological design to prioritize and focus on a short list of important matters. Actively giving our brains a break is one of the best things we can do to feel better. And yes, this is especially important at work.

The hand model of the brain

A helpful way to understand what is happening to our brains (and what to do about it) is to use Dr. Daniel Siegal’s hand model of the brain.

You can start by looking at your open hand. Start at the bottom and think of the base of your palm as the more primitive part of your brain, or the brainstem. This is responsible for involuntary actions that keep you alive (breathing, heart beating, reflexes, etc.). Now travel upwards to the middle of your palm, which represents the limbic system, which is responsible for emotions and memories. Then go all the way up to your fingers. These represent the cerebral cortex, which is responsible for planning and rational decision making. All three of these areas work together to keep us alive and thriving. Now make a fist. This represents all three parts working together under calm circumstances.

And all of a sudden things aren’t so calm.

A colleague just said something aggressive to you that feels vaguely familiar to something you’ve tried to forget, but your body hasn’t forgotten. It gives you signals that it “remembers” this unsafe situation by making your heart beat faster, your cheeks flush, and perhaps this prompts the desire to fight, flee, freeze, or fawn.

Your nicely contracted fist? It has now “flipped its lid” and become an open hand, and your rational cerebral cortex is no longer communicating helpful, reasonable thoughts to the rest of your brain and body. Your brain is in survival mode, ruled by the more primitive reflexes and hard-wired emotions, and it will do what it’s been taught to return to safety, which is not always what our cerebral cortexes would recommend. And when we’re experiencing multiple stressors in many areas as we’ve discussed, this happens over and over again — this can make it more difficult to return to center over time which is, again, not uncommon at work.

Knowing all this can be powerful because then ways to cope make more sense and feel more accessible. A well-known method of calming ourselves down is deep breathing, which, if anything, gives your brain time to become “un-flipped.” Your cerebral cortex becomes more accessible the more time and kindness you give yourself.

What we can do to stay calm and connected at work

Understanding our own biology and triggers is a very helpful place to start. And of course speaking with a mental health professional cannot be recommended enough. But there are also daily habits that help us prioritize our mental health so that we are in control of our moods and behaviors, instead of at their mercy.

Leverage your strengths and what works for you

As a coach and therapist, I get asked all the time for advice on how to feel good and reduce stress. And my response back is almost always a question: what has worked for you in the past?

There are thousands of self-care recommendations that may or may not be effective for you — and that you may or may not want to do. So a good place to start is to think of a really tough time you endured, and identify verbally or in writing (ideally both) what exactly you did to help yourself through that tough time. This should be #1 on your list of strategies to employ the next time your mental health starts to dip. Again, it doesn’t matter if the tough time you endured was work-related or not, I’d still recommend bringing back this proven strength of yours to help you improve your mental health in the workplace, a place we already know can be a bit unkind to our weaknesses.

Other strengths-based approaches include:

  • Daily gratitude lists — These will remind you of what you’re good at and what others appreciate about you
  • Ta-da lists (not to-do lists) — Lists at the end of the day of all the amazing things you accomplished
  • Anything else that helps you see the world from a larger perspective and allows you to give yourself some grace

5 ways to be more intentional with your time

Another way to give yourself some grace is to redesign how you approach the same 24 hours we all have in a day — just acknowledging that we are in the same boat can help us feel better. And the guiding principle for doing this is usually removing rather than adding activities. Here are a handful of suggestions.

  1. Be mindful with your time. When you’re driving, drive. When you’re walking, walk. When you’re on a Zoom call, just be there. Doing more than one thing at a time may bring short-term feelings of accomplishment, but I promise it will yield long-term patterns of disconnectedness and unrealistic expectations.
  1. Define your health must-haves. When we have multiple priorities at work, we know some things can’t be dropped and others are a bit more flexible. The same applies to our health. Identify what you absolutely must make time for (e.g., enough sleep, a certain amount of exercise) and commit to delivering that minimum viable product (MVP) to yourself.
  1. Set work-free times. This is what your shared calendars are for. If you were in a hospital where cell phones weren’t allowed, people would not be able to reach you. Give yourself the same freedom from work by blocking off non-work times like your life depended on it. For many of us it does.
  1. Time in nature is worth its weight in gold for our mental health. Nature is not expecting you to be different and you are not expecting yourself to be different in nature. Use nature’s healing powers to combat the people-pleasing tendencies a workplace can breed.
  1. Time for connecting with others is essential. When we came into this world we needed to co-regulate with our caregivers in order to live. This principle still applies to us as adults, especially in the workplace. The polyvagal institute for health states that “connecting with others who are safe, attuned and present is the best way to restore a health autonomic nervous system.”. The pandemic limited this practice, and re-establishing time to connect with others in a safe space is vital to our health.

Bottom line: Look for bright spots with others

I run a group at the therapy clinic I practice at where group members talk about how their mental health shows up at work — and how to improve their relationship with it. While many people come to that group looking for a silver bullet, they usually walk away with a more valuable lesson: the realization that encouraging each other for our resilience, talents, grit, and creativity in how we’ve endured can be the best antidote for when we feel like it’s all too much.

We’ve all come so far these last few years and learned so many things about ourselves. When we stop to think about it, say it out loud, and have it acknowledged by others, we can be reminded of the power we all have to take care of ourselves and our communities.

To hear even more on this topic, watch the full webinar recording.

Mark Mattek is a Bravely Coach and therapist in California. He currently serves as president at Pi LLC, working with companies to build leadership & team capabilities, focusing on sustainable mental health practices. He has 15+ years’ experience in People leadership roles across multiple industries.

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