When Work May Be Harming Your Mental Health
According to research published by Oracle and Workplace Intelligence, 85 percent of people say work-related mental health issues affect their home life, 76 percent of people feel their workplace should do more to support their mental health and 42 percent say workplace stress results in decreased productivity. It doesn't help that the COVID-19 pandemic made the last 18 months one of the most stressful times for the global workforce.
The relationship between work and mental health
It's called "work" for a reason—for the vast majority, even those of us who feel generally happy at our job, some days are better than others.
There will always be times when work is a genuine grind, or when the only way to deal seems like taking a day (or a week, or a month) off. But that's normal.
Whether you're overworked, badly treated, under-compensated or simply doing a job you don't enjoy or feel passionate about, it can be difficult to identify when work's impact on your mental state drifts into legitimate unhealthy territory. When that begins to happen, the result can be very serious: New or worsening mental health disorders—depression, anxiety, panic and personality disorders are common—as well as long-term side effects on physical health. If that leads to chronic stress, the result could be increased risk of chronic pain, high blood pressure and cardiovascular diseases, including arrhythmia, heart disease, heart attack and stroke.
How do you know when today is more than just another bad day? What metrics, signs and symptoms can we look out for that may warn us when our mental health is really beginning to suffer?
What to look out for
Some of the most common symptoms of work-related stress and impaired mental health (also known as burnout) are sleep deprivation, physical health problems, decreased happiness in one's home life, relationship and family issues, and social isolation. Other physical signs may include the following:
- Frequently feeling anxious, depressed, and irritable.
- An inability to focus or stay motivated.
- Difficulty falling or staying asleep.
- Difficulty making decisions or consistently making poor decisions.
- Worsened memory.
- Appetite and weight changes, muscle tension, headaches, heart palpitations, gastrointestinal issues, skin problems, chronic fatigue and frequent illness.
While at work, you may notice you're taking breaks to relieve stress or that your performance is not what it used to be, and maybe you've even taken the occasional fake sick day because you can't bear the thought of putting yourself through another stressful shift. You may also find yourself having increasingly negative thoughts and a loss of interest, and you procrastinate over easy decisions. You may even develop nervous habits, like pacing or nail-biting.
Outside of the office, indicators can include feeling anxious or nauseous before going to work, having nightmares about your job, difficulty enjoying life outside the office, and perhaps smoking or drinking excessively.
In addition to professional help, prioritizing self-care with activities like meditation, exercise, and time with friends can help you de-stress and re-center.
Start by reflecting on what's going on. Write down how you feel, any symptoms you've experienced, and when they started. Identify other triggers that may be contributing to how you're feeling. Having a journal listing how you felt and when can be an incredibly useful tool for your doctor when they're assessing you.
Your doctor can screen you for anxiety, depression and other mental health disorders, and discuss medications and other treatment options. You may also be referred to a therapist who can help you talk through what you're feeling and develop coping strategies and stress reduction techniques specifically for you.
In addition to professional help, prioritizing self-care with activities like meditation, exercise, and time with friends can help you de-stress and re-center. Remember that wellness should be a continuing state of mind, not something done to "fix" a problem.
To stay or not to stay
Once you've taken care of yourself, it's time to evaluate your workplace, your colleagues and the work that fills your day. No job is worth experiencing such debilitating symptoms, but it's tough (and, often, implausible) to walk away from a position that pays your bills.
It's time for some self-evaluation. This, again, might be something you'll want to write down. Start by asking yourself some questions about what you want and consider your options carefully. Here are some to get you going:
- Are there opportunities for movement at your current job that could increase your happiness?
- What do you really want to do, and does it align at all with the path you're currently on?
- If you weren't at this current job, where would you want to be working?
Once you've addressed these questions and more, you'll begin to have a better idea of the best move to make, and can then strategize how to get there. If you're feeling stuck or confused, talk to a career counselor or therapist who specializes in work stress. This is a process that can take time, but it's a journey you need to take, one patient step at a time.
Whether you remain at your job with an eye to improve your well-being, move into a new role in your current workplace or opt to leave for something new, finding the balance between work and life is critical.
Having goals for the future and working hard are both great, but be careful not to place too much emphasis on both. Always make sure you're taking care of yourself in the here and now first—both physically and mentally.
Think about creating a plan that will ensure you promote mental and physical health daily, but still keep tabs on how you're doing week to week so you can identify any problems early on and decrease the impact of your work on your health now and in the years to come.