Written by ECBC contributor, Jen Heil, a voracious reader, bookstagrammer, dancer, poet and aspiring novelist.
Managing and maintaining good mental health is difficult at the best of times in this non-stop world of ours. Trying to do it when work sucks up your free time and leaves you drained almost before you’ve started is even harder.
As in any aspect of life, prioritising our own wellbeing is essential to being able to manage mental health at work. Recognising this has been a long journey for me: I really struggled to get over the mindset that self-care is selfish. I always felt like I should be prioritising and supporting others before myself. What I have come to realise, however, is that I cannot truly support others, or do any job, to the best of my ability unless I have taken care of myself first. I can’t be productive if I’m running on empty. I can’t help someone else if I’ve let my own need for help go unaddressed. These are things I still have to remind myself of daily but, as I get into the habit of bringing self-awareness and self-care into my working and personal life, there are three key things I have noticed make a real difference to my mental state and, by default, my ability to feel productive and happy at work.
Before I share these insights with you, there’s one, really important thing you need to know.
Putting any of these tips into practise needs to be done without putting pressure on yourself. If you decide to try them our but have a day where you forget to do these things, don’t beat yourself up about it. You are human. Every day is different. Some days it will be really easy to put these things into practise and others it will be nigh on impossible. And that’s ok. Missing a step or forgetting to do something doesn’t mean you failed and doesn’t mean you can’t pick back up again the next day, or as soon as your able, and try again. Make this promise to yourself now:
I will allow myself to be imperfect and if I make mistakes, forget things, or simply find I can’t do them, I will not make myself feel bad. I will treat myself with the same compassion I would a friend.
And since I know that illnesses like depression and anxiety like to play the guilt card at every opportunity, I’m going to clarify right now that if you end up breaking that promise to yourself that’s ok too. And we’ll try again. Sound good? Okay, then, here we go.
1. Start the day right
I am not a morning person. If the day could start at 10am I would be happy. But it doesn’t. I often used to find that my mornings were chaotic, rushed, and left me feeling stressed and exhausted before I even got to work. About 9 months ago we got a puppy. At first, this threw my mornings further into disarray, as I tried to see to the needs of our furry friend as well as my own. After a while, though, I fell into a rhythm with it that made me recognise what my mornings had been missing: routine. Don’t worry, you don’t need to get a puppy to make this work for you! It’s about building a morning routine that addresses your needs. Here are the things that have been key to a successful morning for me:
Give yourself time.
I used to set my alarm as late as I could to try and get more sleep but that meant I was always rushing. Sure, there are some mornings where I end up hitting snooze more than I should and I still end up all a fluster, and yes when it first goes off I wish I didn’t have to get up quite so early, but generally giving myself and extra half an hour, or even fifteen minutes, in the morning has helped me have a calmer start to the day and it makes the world of difference.
Do something for you.
This involves getting over those fears of using your time selfishly! In your morning routine, set aside a little bit of time where you focus on something that brings you pleasure or helps you relax. Read a few pages of a book, write some morning pages, meditate or do a short yoga sequence, go for a walk round the block. It can be anything you want but it should be something that brings a little window of happiness or peace into your day. You may be surprised at the difference fifteen minutes of ‘me-time’ can have on your outlook.
Get squeaky clean.
It’s amazing the healing power to be had from a quick shower! My shower routine varies massively, and I will often shower before bed rather than in the morning. I also know that the Black Dog of depression can make things like showering really, really hard to do. So, make it work for you. If you don’t have time for or can’t face a full shower, do something as simple as splashing cold water on your face, or running a damp cloth over your body. Some days I’ll do this and the refreshment it provides makes me think, sod it, I’m having a shower – that then becomes my ‘thing for me’ that morning. If you can find the motivation to give your body the cleanliness it craves you will not only feel a sense of accomplishment but will feel more prepared to face the day.
It’s that age-old wisdom: breakfast is the most important meal of the day. I rarely used to eat breakfast. At 6am, the last thing I felt like doing was eating anything. But this has changed over time and it really does give me more energy to face the day. If, like me, you sometimes (or always) struggle to eat early in the morning, stock up on things you can take with you to work to eat on the go or at your desk: cereal bars, sesame snaps, and fruit are ideal.
(One thing I know many people do to help their mornings run smoothly is to prepare as much as possible the night before: get your clothes out for the next day, make your lunch and stick it in the fridge, pack your bag etc. There is absolutely value in doing this and it might be worth trying. Personally, I am terrible at actually putting this into practise! I change my mind about what I want to wear, I forget my lunch is in the fridge and end up having to buy something, and I get anxious that I’ll have forgotten to put something important in my bag so repack it anyway. Like I said, make it work for you.
2.Organise to avoid overwhelm
I don’t know about you but one of the things that never fails to make my working life feel stressful is the never-ending to-do list. You know the one: for everything you tick off four more items magically appear on the bottom. Talk about overwhelming.
My favourite way to manage this is to start my working day by writing the five, highest priority tasks on post-its and moving them around until I’ve got a manageable to-do list in a sensible order. I then set just one achievable goal that moves me closer to completing the highest priority task. It might be that in a day I only achieve that one goal, or maybe don’t even achieve that. But on a good day I’ll find that I can complete all five of my highest priority tasks and it feels so good! Where I would have panicked and felt completely unable to be productive I am now able to make noticeable progress and feel like I have achieved something measurable.
A couple of other tricks to help with this include making the items on your to-do list small. Don’t have a big item like “Plan CPD programme” – break it down into several smaller tasks, like:
- Decide CPD aims and outcomes.
- Draft outline for sessions.
- List potential facilitators.
- Contact potential facilitators for availability.
In this way you’ll be able to check things off more quickly and will feel more productive and, thus, calmer and happier.
Most jobs also have at least some element of unpredictability to them and there will be days when, with all the good intentions in the world, the to-do list has to take a back seat to address something unexpected that came up. Seeing an unchanged to-do list at the end of the day can make you feel terrible so I like to finish my day by writing down all the things I did, that weren’t on the to-do list, and checking them off! It’s a wonderful way to acknowledge that you have achieved something, even if it wasn’t what you hoped or intended.
3. Seek out support
Working whilst struggling with mental illness can be incredibly isolating. Although there are more open conversations than ever happening around mental health, there are still taboos and misconceptions, or the fear of those misconceptions, that prevent us from talking openly about the impact of our mental health. The worry that we will be seen as incapable, or that we will be met with dismissiveness or derision, is very real and very frightening. But the only way to change those conversations is to start those conversations.
Easier said than done, I know, and it won’t be possible for everyone, but if you have friends at work, or colleagues you trust enough to be open with, even a little bit, then take that chance and share with them what’s going on. I have found that if I open up a conversation around mental health when I’m having a good day then it’s easier to say when I’m having a bad one. I’ve also found that, more often than not, taking that step gives other people the opportunity to step forward and say “You know what, me too.” You may be surprised how many people have suffered at some point.
If you genuinely don’t have anyone at work who you feel comfortable having these conversations with, which I know is a very real possibility, then seek support outside of work. Build a network of people who you trust and who you can talk to. Ask their advice when your mental health is affecting your working life or just take the opportunity to voice out loud what it is you’re struggling with.
There you have it! There are many, many more things you can try but these are the things that have made the difference to me.
By getting into a routine and building a network you make small changes that have a big impact. These things are not always easy to do but I genuinely think that the challenge is well worth the outcome. I hope there’s something here you can try and put into practice and that it will help your wellbeing at work.
For snippets of creative writing, reviews and recommendations, general musings and reflections to mental health advocacy check out Jen’s amazing blog.