Mental health and the workplace
On average, most of us spend a third of our lives at work. Making sure that Kiwi workplaces nourish mental wellbeing seems like a no-brainer. Although the conversation has started to open up for some, let’s avoid any confusion from the start by defining mental health and wellbeing.
According to the World Health Organisation, mental health is a ‘state of well-being in which every individual realises 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 her or his community.” (2). I don’t know about you, but I think that sounds awesome. As the shroud of stigma around mental illness gradually starts to lift, we begin to recognise mental wellbeing or positive mental health as more than the absence of mental illness, but rather a state of flourishing mental health.
Let’s face the facts on mental health and the workplace(1):
But wait, you might say, “what are the normal stresses of life?”
Stress – a mental or emotional strain or tension from demanding circumstances – is normal, and often necessary in the good times to prepare ourselves for more challenging times of our lives. Physical stress is a requirement to heal and grow tissue, aiding titration for an optimal physiological response. Both good stress and bad stress exist, but exposure to too much bad stress can set us on a path toward a heightened state of alert and protection seeking. You may have heard of the “fight, flight or freeze” response – perhaps you can think of a moment in your own life when you felt a rush (natural chemical response) that sharpened your senses and gave you superhuman strength? This is an automatic stress response that can help us get ourselves (and those around us) out of a sticky situation. When this response is triggered on the regular – think red alerts on our social media, beeping trucks and fridges, continuous email notifications popping up in the corner of our computer screens, near misses in busy traffic – we are putting unnecessary strain on our systems. Sometimes small stressors build up over time and if we miss our warning signs, can lead to physical, mental and emotional fatigue. In more extreme circumstances, ‘burnout’ or exhaustion can occur. Some warning signs are listed below in the infographic from the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand worksheet(3):
Recognising these signs is the first step to making changes to prevent occupational burnout.
Think, the three ‘Rs’ - Refuel, Resolve, Relax(4)
We need to fuel our bodies and minds to take on the daily challenges. Identify what recharges you: is it regular exercise, eating healthy food, doing things that make you happy, connecting with others, relaxation?
Some stressors and risk factors to stress are out of our control and may require you to reach out to others for support. For stressors that we can control, we can explore what options we have to: change, rethink or accept the circumstances or situation.
What are our triggers? How do I usually respond?
What and who helps prevent the triggers?
What solutions are best for us?
How can we plan, practice and review our successes?
Taking time to practice relaxation promotes a state of rest and digest, which reduces the effects of prolonged stress, that helps us to recuperate.
Physiologically speaking, when we relax, the body’s response results in slowed heart rate, slowed breathing and reduced use of oxygen. The blood pH is also improved, reducing the sensitivity of the nervous system. In turn, this reduces your startle response and decreases blood vessel resistance. It also causes the downregulation of genes responsible for chronic inflammatory response and upregulation of genes that help control blood sugar and protect our cells from oxidative stress.
If you are struggling to relax on your own, guided relaxation can be instructed by a physiotherapist via a variety of focused breathing methods, mindfulness and meditation. You might also find benefit from guided relaxation in yoga or voice recordings.
The five ways to wellbeing (5) are simple reminders of things we can implement in our daily life at home, at work and in our communities to build resilience, boost wellbeing and lower risk of developing a mental health problem. Connect. Keep learning. Be active. Give. Take Notice.
See the below on why the ‘Five Ways’ work and how to implement them. Credit for the descriptions of The Five Ways below comes from the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand’s Five Ways to Wellbeing at Work Toolkit.
Why the Five Ways work
Connect: Strengthening relationships with others and feeling close to and valued by others, including at work, is critical to boosting wellbeing.
Keep Learning: Being curious and seeking out new experiences at work and in life, more generally positively stimulates the brain.
Be Active: Being physically active, including at work, improves physical health and can improve mood and wellbeing and decrease stress, depression and anxiety. Should there be a physical barrier to this (i.e. injury), our therapists can assess and assist with overcoming this barrier.
Give: Carrying out acts of kindness, whether small or large, can increase happiness, life satisfaction and promote a general sense of wellbeing.
Take Notice: Paying more attention to the present moment, to thoughts and feelings and the world around us boosts our wellbeing.
The Five Ways in action
• Connect with the people around you. With family, friends, colleagues and neighbours.
• Keep Learning. Try something new. Rediscover an old interest. Take on a new responsibility at work.
Heather Hickey, Senior Physiotherapist