Over the last year, workers in the United States and across the globe have been forced to reckon with the unexpected stressors of a global health pandemic, and a consequent social and economic crisis.
Balancing mental health in the workplace has become a greater and more widespread challenge during this period of uncertainty.
This is especially true for the millions of people in the United States with a mental health or substance use disorder, who can experience greater difficulty finding employment in addiction recovery.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), rates of depression, suicidal thoughts, and substance use saw an increase last year, particularly among essential workers and unpaid caregivers.
Most everyone has been impacted by the pandemic in some way. Learning how to better manage stress in the workplace can be an effective strategy for promoting a work-life balance that is conducive to professional and personal success.
Balancing mental health in the workplace can largely be achieved through fostering a healthy work environment and taking care of mental health.
Promoting the positive mental health of workers is not just a task that workers themselves must be forced to reckon with individually. A workplace environment that is supportive, productive, and fosters effective communication between employees can also promote mental health.
According to Mental Health America, a national advocacy organization, a healthy workplace is one where workers feel supported and valued. Creating this type of workplace can be accomplished through a variety of strategies, including:
Laying the groundwork for a functional workplace: A healthy workplace, and by extension, healthy workers, can be fostered by a work environment that is clean, organized, and well-staffed.
Providing workers with a livable wage: Research from the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health shows that financial strain, including low income, can predict thoughts of suicide and suicide attempts. Low wages are also associated with job turnover, chronic stress, and poorer health outcomes. As noted by Mental Health America, providing a livable wage can promote a committed and sustainable workforce.
Open communication: Communicating openly and effectively with coworkers can reduce stress, uncertainty, and promote a work environment that is both productive and satisfactory.
Providing reasonable accommodations: Providing reasonable accommodations for people with mental or physical disabilities can help promote positive mental health in workers and make a workplace more attractive for new hires.
Adequate mental health coverage: Having affordable access to mental health services, including counseling and substance use services, can be a preventative factor for health issues that could negatively affect a person’s ability to work or live comfortably.
Maintaining mental health during times of uncertainty
A healthy work environment isn’t the only factor that can help workers balance their mental health during times of uncertainty.
Health experts contend that social determinants of health, such as having health insurance, stable employment, and safe housing also play a key role in health outcomes. Admittedly, on an individual level, this is more difficult for a single worker to control.
But there are strategies people can utilize themselves, both at home and at work, to take care of their well-being and set a positive example for others.
Taking care of mental health in the workplace
Do you get stressed during work hours? We’ve all been there. Adopting healthy coping tools is one strategy that may be able to help you get through the tough days.
If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed by work-related tasks, for instance, consider making a list. Take each task step by step, and cross off each task as it’s completed. This can provide a sense of accomplishment and also make it easier to visualize what needs to be done.
If your schedule allows, consider also trying to take small breaks. Carving a few minutes out of your day to take some deep breaths or step away can be restorative and help you feel better equipped to handle a high-stress situation.
And if you’re struggling with a work task, ask for help. All work environments vary in the level of collaboration or independent work they require. But if you’re having an issue that is not resolving on its own, consider seeking the advice of a colleague, supervisor, or manager.
Don’t wait for an issue at work to overwhelm you before seeking the input of someone who may have the experience or expertise to provide you with the assistance you need.
Taking care of mental health at home
Whether you work from home or in a physical location elsewhere, taking steps to care for yourself outside of work hours can help to support a positive attitude while on the clock.
What you can do to take care of your mental health at home:
Unplug: Turn off notifications for your work email. Put your work phone away. Create some distance between your work and personal life. Call a friend, cook a tasty dinner, read a book, or watch a TV show that makes you laugh. Whatever provides you with a sense of peace.
Don’t overcommit yourself: If work is stressing you out, give yourself space outside of that to take a break. Give yourself permission to say ‘no’ to non-work activities that are exacerbating existing stress. Listen to your gut.
Share responsibilities: Dividing responsibilities equally in the household can prevent one person from having to bear the brunt of having to attend to everything. Organize a list, a spreadsheet, or a physical demonstration of household tasks and responsibilities that need to be attended to on a regular basis.
What to do if you’re struggling with mental health
Struggling with mental health isn’t a sign of weakness, and it isn’t uncommon. The last year, in particular, has been a trying time for many people.
If you’ve been struggling with a mental health or substance use issue, the most important thing you can do for yourself is to talk to someone about it, and if you’re in a position to do so—seek professional help.
Here are ideas for what you can do if you’re struggling with mental health:
Talk to your doctor: If you have a primary care doctor, or general physician, set up an appointment to discuss your mental health. Your doctor may be able to offer suggestions or a referral for specialized counseling or psychiatric services.
Counseling: Counseling can look like a lot of different things depending on the counselor and the modality they practice. Many counselors specialize in different areas of mental health, such as trauma, depression, anxiety, or grief.
Making an appointment with a psychiatrist: If you have a history of mental health issues, or suspect this may be the case, consider seeking the expertise of a psychiatrist. A psychiatrist can prescribe medication and may be able to offer insight into what may be contributing to your struggles.
Dual diagnosis treatment: Nearly 20 percent of people with a mental illness also have substance use issues. If you’re struggling with mental health and drug or alcohol use, you may benefit from dual diagnosis, a type of treatment that can treat all co-occurring issues at once.
Seeking out a treatment program: A formal treatment program, including an outpatient program or inpatient treatment program, may be recommended if you’re having issues that are significantly impacting your day-to-day life.
Nearly one in five people in the United States have a mental illness, and no one is immune. Whether you have a mental illness, or have found yourself feeling depressed or anxious over the last year: You’re not alone.
Finding a balance with your mental health is possible. And you don’t have to face the task of accomplishing this alone. Talk to a trusted friend, family member, or even a coworker about how you’re feeling, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Author bio: McKenna Schueler is a content specialist for the company, Ark Behavioral Health, which owns a network of substance abuse treatment centers in Massachusetts. McKenna has a Bachelor of Arts degree in English, with a minor in Psychology.