Work is great! If we’re working, we are far more likely to be mentally (and physically) healthy than if we’re not. This is because work provides social connectedness and meaning and purpose, which are both really good for mental wellbeing. However, for many people work is not a good place, and mental ill-health in the workplace is an increasingly serious problem for individuals, their colleagues and families, and for our society and the economy as a whole.
The big question is, where is the solution? Is it at the individual, organisational, family, or societal level? The answer is simple, the solution is with the self – that’s you, the “individual”. The buck stops with you, and this is a good thing because if you own challenge and change, you grow as a person. And if you grow as a person your life can improve. It is also essential for workplace managers and leaders to understand this, so that individuals can be supported and empowered to help themselves.
In a nutshell, the problem is stress, disconnection, and vulnerability. Work is becoming increasingly stressful and socially unpredictable and disconnected, and this is leading to our natural human vulnerabilities being triggered. Take for example the corporate worker who is experiencing sleeplessness, muscle tension and pain, and frequent feelings of panic with racing thoughts. He says that in his organisation there is more time spent restructuring than more stable non-restructuring time, and his colleagues, role, desk, and managers are constantly changing. Then he says he wants to understand why he is experiencing these symptoms of mental ill-health. Chaos has become normal for millions of workers, yet chaos is extremely stressful, and stress can be dangerous.
While we need some positive stress to motivate and drive us, the chemical effects of sustained negative stress build up in our system and can become toxic, leading to burnout, breakdown, and mental illness. As humans we have a limited amount of energy, and we can tolerate a limited amount of stress. Limits are different for everyone, but everyone has a limit. I see this in my work with some of the most successful people in our society when sustained high work demands, along with other stresses both at work and home, lead to the triggering of vulnerabilities and mental illness. These vulnerabilities to stress are part of being human, but they have different patterns and pathways for each person because of our unique genetic inheritance and life experience.
The core vulnerabilities we all have relate to the basic set of negative emotions that were designed to help us survive as individuals and a species. These are fear/anxiety, anger, and sadness. Stress can change these from occasional normal feelings into frequent uncontrollable feelings, which are the symptoms of mental illness.
An example of individual patterns and pathways of vulnerability is a client who became severely anxious when her professional integrity was formally questioned by a colleague. In her early life this client had separated herself from her dysfunctional family by focussing on study and work achievements, and her sense of worth and identity was enmeshed with her work. Leading up to the anxiety there was family friction at home and a death in her family of origin. This personal stress accumulated for the client and was tipped over into debilitating anxiety by the questioning of her professional integrity. The impact was so strong because the existing family stress was close to her stress-limit, and then her deeply entrenched vulnerabilities from the past were triggered suddenly and subconsciously, taking her way over her stress-limit very quickly.
This type of unmanaged stress can greatly reduce at-work effectiveness, or lead people to take leave or stop working altogether.
Self-awareness is the first and most important tool for mental health, in the workplace and at home. There are three stages to self-awareness:
- Learn how humans work
- Understand and accept that you are human, and the opportunities and challenges that come with that
- Learn about your own unique human-ness
Learning how humans work (in the functioning, not the occupational sense) can increase perspective and inform better relationships and decisions.
Understanding and accepting your own humanity seems obvious, but so many people are so very hard on themselves they forget that they are not alone, and that life is challenging for everyone.
Learning about your own human-ness enables you to be strategic and sustainable in your work and your life. It’s a challenging lifelong journey, but it’s REALLY worth it.
Talking about being human takes courage. Getting support for yourself is essential if stress is high or vulnerabilities are triggered, and getting support early increases the chances of faster, lasting recovery.
Nothing changes if nothing changes. If something is wrong, do something right, do something positive for YOU. Small is fine – exercise, go somewhere, see someone, write something, relax, join a group or a class. Take action even if you don’t feel like it. Take action even if there isn’t something wrong. If you do nothing else, do something!