How to improve your mental health at work: a guide for employees

The past year has been a struggle for everyone for different reasons. The importance of talking about mental health has been highlighted by the challenges we’ve all faced: worry over the health of loved ones, increased isolation and loneliness, higher levels of unemployment, furlough and job insecurity, and stress over home-schooling, to name just a few. No two people are the same and no-one’s mental health concerns are more or less important than another person’s even if they seem less pressing.

As the lockdown starts to ease and workplaces re-open there are likely to be new triggers for stress and anxiety. In light of this and because April is Stress Awareness Month, we at AJ Products thought now would be a good time to share some ways to better manage your mental health.

How to get help with mental health issues

If you need immediate emotional support and are struggling to cope, you can call the Samaritans on 116 123 for free or visit Mind or the NHS for help.

For those suffering from stress or anxiety, there are a lot of free resources available that can help you manage your issues and improve your wellbeing from podcasts, books and apps to organisations that can offer support on a range of topics including physical, mental, financial and social wellbeing. These offer an easy way to learn more about what you’re feeling, understand that you’re not alone in feeling that way and find ways to help you cope. We’ve included a few recommendations to get you started.

  • Every Mind Matters from the NHS is a great place to get started, offering advice, ways to cope and resources for common problems such as anxiety, low mood, sleep and the pressures created by the pandemic.
  • 10 best podcasts about mental health: helpful tips for coping with anxiety and depression from those who've experienced it first-hand, spent their lives treating those who have, or both.
  • 17 best mental health books for 2021: books that will inspire, motivate and uplift you whilst also providing practical, meaningful strategies to boost your mental health.
  • Mental health apps: Apps designed to help you combat stress, anxiety and depression, as recommended by the NHS.

How to support your own mental health in the workplace

1. Get in touch with your mental health

Be honest with yourself about your concerns and anxieties whether they are about work or not. Acknowledging the issues you’re facing is the first step in finding a way to manage them.

2. Make use of the resources available

Many people aren’t aware or don’t make use of what’s available to them. Find out what resources your employer already provides (if any). Do they have a mental health policy in place? Do they offer an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) where you could get confidential and independent advice?

3. Ask for what you need

No-one knows what you need to stay healthy and happy at work better than you. You are your best advocate. If your company doesn’t provide what you need, speak to your manager or HR about whether it can be made available. This could range from independent mental health support to more flexible working hours, a better desk setup or any number of other small changes that could make a big difference to your wellbeing.

4. Reach out to colleagues

Build a support network of colleagues with whom you have regular contact and who you can talk to about work issues and, if you’re comfortable doing so, outside stressors too. Arrange to meet for a walk or a coffee on a regular basis, somewhere outside the workplace where you can talk openly. Also, ask for regular one to ones with your manager where you can discuss any issues you’re having at work that may affect your wellbeing and job performance.

5. Only share when you’re ready

Although your employer can often provide help or support, remember that you are under no obligation to disclose your mental health challenges at work. The decision to share or not is yours alone.

How you can support your mental health through exercise, nutrition and mindfulness

Make time for physical activity

Physical activity can have a big impact on your emotional wellbeing by boosting energy levels and mood, relieving stress, increasing self-esteem and improving memory and sleep. If you don’t normally do much exercise, start slowly and build up. Even a short brisk walk can make a difference.

Set yourself an achievable goal and keep track of your progress over time. Ideally you want to aim for 150 minutes of moderate physical activity (such as brisk walking, cycling or dancing) or 75 minutes of vigorous physical exercise (such as running or swimming) each week. There are lots of apps, such as Couch to 5K or Strava, that can help as well as workout videos available for free online, including these 10-minute workouts from the NHS. Get on your exercise bike if you have one or try active office furniture to keep you on the go even while you work. Remember that it’s not a competition, the only person you’re trying to better is yourself. The Mental Health Foundation has lots more information on how to look after your mental health using exercise and you can find tips on how to get started at Sport England: Join the Movement.

Eat healthily

Eating right is also important. A balanced diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables and less sugar and processed food can reduce mood swings, help you sleep better and improve your ability to concentrate. Don’t forget to stay hydrated and make sure you get enough sleep.

Practice mindfulness techniques

Mindfulness means focusing on the present moment, where you are and what you’re doing instead of being consumed by what’s going on around you. Some simple techniques can help you to relax when you’re feeling anxious or stressed. Check out Mindful for more tips on getting started.

  • Breathing: Start by breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth slowly. One breath cycle should last for approximately 6 seconds. Focus on your breathing and let go of your thoughts.
  • Observation: Choose a natural object from within your immediate environment and focus on watching it for a minute or two. Don’t do anything except allow yourself to watch it as if you were seeing it for the first time and think about its place in the world.
  • Appreciation: Find 5 small things in your day that usually go unappreciated. It could be anything from putting your feet into your favourite slippers to listening to the birds in the morning. Think about each one and how it improves your life in small but meaningful ways.

As we continue our Return to Work series, we will look at what companies can do to support employee mental health and reduce anxiety around returning to the office as well as how they can implement corporate wellbeing programmes.

AJ Products recommends the following resources for anyone suffering stress, anxiety or mental health issues

Samaritans: call free from anywhere in the UK on 116 123 to speak to someone. Lines are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Mind: find information and support to help you or someone you know cope with mental health

NHS: Mental health: how to access support services for mental health concerns

NHS Every Mind Matters: tips on how to look after your mental health, cope with money worries, manage stress and more

NHS One You: For you body: tips on how to move more, eat better, sleep better and more