Reflecting on my mental health at work
Last year we asked our Instagram followers how they look after their mental health at work.
Rachel reflects on what this question means to her own life. She offers advice based on her own lived experience. We know that the way we experience our mental health is individual to each of us and that you may find that you resonate with Rachel's story or that you want to add your own perspective. If so, get in touch with [email protected].
Your experience of mental health at work
What was most interesting for me to see was that responses were torn between whether to disclose a mental health problem at work or not. Some people felt that whilst this was initially a scary thing to do, it was worthwhile in the long term because reasonable adjustments were made, people were more understanding and they felt more secure at work knowing that there was support for them if they needed. Sadly, other people had had the opposite experience, whereby disclosing had meant that people treated them differently, they felt labelled and discriminated against and they felt that their jobs were less secure because of their disclosure.
My experience of mental health at work
I have worked since I was about 17, before, during and after university. As a teenager I worked in hotels, restaurants and pubs. At university I worked at John Lewis and when I finished, I went back to pub work while I tried to get a graduate job. After a few unpaid internships in the third sector I got my first paid job in 2013 at NSPCC. Since then I’ve worked in three other charities. My mental health has varied during my time in work, there have been times where I’ve really struggled and times where I’ve really thrived. For me, so much of how I have felt at work and how well I’ve performed as a result, has been down to the working culture and environment and my relationships with colleagues. In addition, having a supportive manager is essential.
Making mistakes and perfectionism
One thing that has always mattered to me, regardless of how I’m feeling, is that I am a high achiever and well organised. This is the perfectionism in me and the fact that I have always, since school, been ambitious and wanted to do well. I have noticed over time that this perfectionism can be unhealthy and linked to me having unrealistic standards or giving myself too much of a hard time if I make a mistake.
I have had to try to be better at not internalising shame, guilt and self-judgment in situations where I have made a human error or not performed as well as I would have liked. I have noticed that the mood I have previously got into after something has gone wrong has been negative and unhelpful and what I should have felt towards myself instead was compassion and understanding. Sitting at my desk feeling terrible about myself is not conducive to my best performance at work, so learning to forgive our mistakes and realise we’re just humans trying to do our best is essential.
Public speaking, meetings and confidence
Something that I’ve always found challenging as someone who is quite introverted is public speaking. What has been the hardest for me is marrying up my perfectionism with my fear of public speaking, because even though I find public speaking scary, I am passionate and care a lot about my work so feel compelled to speak about things I want to influence or change. This makes it impossible for me to just sit back and listen because I want to have a positive input and offer my opinion.
Even though I don’t have to go to serious meetings very often in my role, when it does happen it really affects me and I get very stressed in the lead up to them. As a Grants Manager I am responsible for funder meetings and stewarding funders at events. The best way for me to manage my anxiety in these situations is be well prepared. I’ve always overprepared for meetings so that I can mitigate the impact of something going wrong as much as possible, and so I can feel as confident as possible (with an easily triggered amygdala that is always sparking my fight or flight response prematurely).
Being well prepared and not being too hard on yourself is important when managing your mental health in meetings. I don’t put too much pressure on myself to speak in a big meeting if I don’t need to, and I let myself leave a meeting (if I am able to) if my anxiety reaches a certain level. This hasn’t happened yet, but knowing that I can do this if I need to makes my brain relax.
I think it’s always worth telling your colleagues if you’re afraid of public speaking, so that they know that at some point you may need to take a break or leave a situation if something gets too much. This isn’t possible in every meeting, like with a funder, but in situations where it is possible then knowing you have that option to politely leave if you need to is a comfort and something most reasonable people will understand. Public speaking gets easier over time and if you know the material you are speaking about, then this should be enough to reassure you and help you try to relax beforehand.
Toxic vs empowering culture
Having worked in a few different work environments now, something that I find essential to good mental health at work is an empowering culture. A toxic work culture, to me, is a culture that is hierarchical, siloed and fear inspired – where people blame and shame each other and staff (especially junior staff) are afraid to put a foot wrong. It is a culture where managers criticise and micromanage rather than praise, support and trust those they line manage. It encourages division, cliques and bullying, and is sometimes very subtle and hard to prove (especially if it is coming from someone who is well-established and senior in the organisation).
Experiencing workplace bullying
Unfortunately, I experienced a toxic working environment in a previous job where I was bullied. Because the person bullying me was my manager and fairly influential in their role, it was very difficult to prove that the way they managed was damaging and inappropriate. They were also good at manipulating situations and opinions in their favour. They would behave totally differently around others in the organisation, so it was not obvious how my teammates and I were being unhealthily assessed and micromanaged. But for all those who were managed by them, it got to a point where we didn’t want to come into work, and instead of thriving in our roles we were making mistakes simply because we were terrified and constantly attacked or criticised.
With toxic cultures and management, it is important that you take action to address them, to help protect your mental health. This sometimes takes courage and decisiveness - and will depend on what is right for each individual. For me in my old job, it meant making a complaint to HR about my manager and officially challenging my appraisal decision. At first, I felt like I had no one on side, but eventually others also complained, and HR could see that there was a pattern emerging that they could not ignore. Eventually my manager had all managerial responsibilities taken off them and was assigned a new role. This happened after I had already left the organisation unfortunately, but at least it happened.
If action is not being taken quickly enough or you feel powerless because people don’t see what you see, then you may want to proactively find a new job. Try not place blame on yourself and notice if it is starting to impact affect your self-esteem. You could try to seek out something healthier and ask about workplace culture when you go for interviews to try and mitigate finding yourself in another toxic one! If possible surround yourself as much as possible with supportive colleagues at work, people who understand you and you can confide in.
Taking a break from your computer and work generally is essential for wellbeing, physical and mental health. Sitting down for 8 hours a day is apparently taking years off our life and giving us a slower metabolism and dry eye syndrome, amongst other things. But in addition to the physical effects, our brains are working in overdrive and never getting peace. So, I try to take little breaks as much as I can to walk around, do stretches and make hot drinks, and I try to get outside over lunch. There is a danger that we make ourselves ill if we don’t take breaks and there is so much more to life than just working.
Work life balance
We need to have a work life balance. I really value my life outside of work and I am fortunate that I can leave on time most days. I try to keep work life and home life separate as much as possible, as it’s integral to my wellbeing that I have other interests and projects to concentrate on outside of my job. I think it’s important that we all have hobbies and things that we like to do outside out of work, even if that is just reading or relaxing. I will avoid taking work home with me as much as possible.
Managing stress and anxiety
Something that inevitably happens at work is that we get stressed and sometimes this stress can be overwhelming. Sometimes when we are stressed we can overact or lash out and upset others without meaning to. This is something I have been guilty of at times and then I feel terrible afterwards. The best thing to try to do to avoid getting to an unbearable level of stress is to take preventative measures in the form of self-care as much as possible, to avoid reacting in a way you later regret.
For me this means being organised with my workload, being prepared and managing my time effectively. it means taking regular breaks, it means avoiding toxicity where possible and it means appropriately speaking up for myself and saying how I feel. Internalising feelings and avoiding situations instead of confronting them can make things worse and lead to underlying tension and stress that hangs over you. In order to feel calm at work I never minimise something that has affected me or avoid saying something I need to say or doing something I need to do. I give these things the attention they need.
It also helps to manage stress outside of work time. For me this means exercising, eating well, moderating drinking and sleeping well. Keeping a healthy body helps keep a healthy mind. I’m unable to function properly at work if my body feels unwell and I’m rundown or hungover or sleep deprived. We need to be kind to ourselves as much as possible and give ourselves the best chance to be well and thriving at work.
If stress and anxiety get too much at work and you can’t cope, speak to someone you trust about it and take some time off. This isn’t a weakness this is healing. I’ve had panic attacks in the office before and what has been so helpful for me has been non-judgemental, supportive colleagues sitting with me, listening and letting me have space. I also found that regular meditation helped control the anxiety and stopped the attacks all together.
Putting your mental health first
To conclude – give yourself the best chance of mental wellness and success at work by being organised and prepared, not being too hard on yourself if something goes wrong, removing yourself from toxic environments, reporting bullying or harassment, taking breaks and managing stress and anxiety with prevention in mind. We spend most of our time at work so it’s critical that we are mentally well there. Your mental health comes first and even when you feel like your job is more important, it isn’t.
Help could be checking if your workplace provides any care benefits or support services for their employees
It can be a great idea to investigate what benefits your workplace provides their staff. As you may already be entitled to mental health support that you didn’t know about. Often workplace care packages include care for mental health. This may come in the form of a set number of talking therapy appointments, or information lines.
- An example of this is the widely used ‘Employee Assist Programme’ (EAP).
- Mind legal line : available Monday to Friday 9am to 6pm to provide legal information and general advice on mental health related law, covering: mental health, mental capacity, community care, human rights and discrimination/equality related to mental health issues.
- Call Mind legal line on 0300 466 6463 (UK).
- National Bullying Helpine: open 9am to 5pm Monday to Friday to provide information and advice about bullying related to workplace bullying or bullying at school
- Call National Bullying Helpline on: 0845 22 55 787 (UK)
- Samaritans offer a 24-hours a day, 7 days a week support service. Call them FREE on 116 123. You can also email [email protected]
Getting help for my mental health
- We provide information on different ways to get help for your mental health and how to access this support on our 'getting help' page.
Your mental health matters
To anyone that is experiencing mental health problems right now. We want you to know that we care, and that you are not alone.
To anybody that passionately wants to create change - join our movement and let’s do this together.