Mental Health in the Workplace: The Role of Emotional Resilience
Author: Dr Harry Barry - GP & Bestelling Author
There are many challenges facing our mental health. Life itself is a challenge, a roller coaster ride. All of us will encounter roadblocks through the different phases of life whether through Illness, loss, bereavement, financial setbacks, family crises or interpersonal conflicts.
Our capacity to negotiate such challenges is determined by our Emotional Resilience. This relates to our individual capacity to cope with the adversities of life. Resilience comes from the Latin resilio which means to recoil or bounce back. Those who have this ability will suffer less from toxic stress, anxiety, physical illness, bouts of depression and less likely to self-harm.
The modern workplace is itself adding to these normal life challenges. It is becoming faster, complex and stressful. Its tentacles, which in the past were confined to routine office hours, are now entwining themselves into the fabric of our family and social lives. This can lead to a disruption of the normal healthy work/life balance so critical to our mental health. Some of us work from home and may find ourselves increasingly isolated. Others really struggle with long commutes, difficulties with accommodation, juggling parenting duties with work and an email culture designed to make us continuously accessible and available at all time.
The results of this mixture of work and non-work-based stressors can be the arrival into our lives of significant emotional or mental distress and in a smaller number of cases, bouts of mental illness.
How often have you experienced episodes of toxic stress or ‘burnout’? This may present as constant fatigue, feeling tired but wired, sleep difficulties, irritable bowel, tension headaches combined with feeling flat, lacking motivation, more anxious and frustrated and perhaps arguing more with colleagues and loved ones. We may find ourselves exercising less, drinking more, eating poorly and aimlessly browsing social media and other media outlets late at night.
How often have you experienced bouts of anxiety – either acute in the form of panic attacks or phobias – or just constantly worrying and catastrophising about all aspects of your life? Or perhaps constantly and mercilessly, self-rating? Or seeking perfection when it does not exist in real life?
Or perhaps you can relate more to bouts of intense frustration or even on occasions bouts of depression or low mood where the joy of life becomes sucked out of you and you feel constantly fatigued and negative about yourself and the world you live in. Where you struggle with your cognition – that is your memory, attention, decision making and problem solving. Where thoughts of self-harm may begin to intrude into your mind.
Clearly, we can take some practical steps to assist our mental health in the workplace. We can exercise 30 minutes a day, improve our nutrition, develop better sleep hygiene, reduce our alcohol levels, practice mindfulness and above all try and impose some order on our excessive usage and interactions with modern technology, especially in areas such as the smartphone and email checking. All these steps would profoundly reduce our chances of toxic stress and other causes of emotional distress already discussed.
But if we could ally such lifestyle changes with improving our Emotional Resilience skills, then our workplace mental health would greatly improve and strengthen. In Emotional Resilience I lay out 20 such skills and how we can learn to develop and practice such skills – often acquiring them within a three-month period. Let’s now explore a selection of six such skills and suggest some exercises to assist you to acquire them.
1. How to develop a healthy work/life balance
How often have you felt tired but wired after a period of persistent stress? Or found yourself struggling to sleep with nightmares and teeth grinding resulting. Such periods are often created by allowing an unhealthy work/life balance to creep into our lives. Suppose I asked you to list off at this moment the following six items and put them in order of priority in your life - work, children (if relevant), wider family, relationship, self and the rest (including social media and hobbies. How many would put them in the correct order which should read as follows – self, relationship, children (if relevant), wider family, work and them the rest? It is extremely rare for someone, if honest, to do so. It is often, for example, work or children first and very often, oneself last!!
If we do not look after our own personal physical and mental health and the health of our personal relationship, the rest will crumble and trouble beckons. A useful exercise to perform with assistance of your partner is to do a weekly priority list for a period of three months with the intention of ensuring the list become as healthy as you can make it. The long – term benefits will astound you!
2. Improve your empathy skills
Empathy allows us to smoothly navigate the social landscape of the workplace. It is one of the most important ‘soft skills’ to learn and one that will greatly reduce your chances of developing mental health difficulties. Emotional Empathy is where we unconsciously tune in to another’s emotional state. Cognitive Empathy is where we consciously try to identify and understand the other’s feelings. We need to hear what is being said and not said! Empathy is a two-way conversation - the capacity to open the door into the mind and heart of another human being.
If you are observant, you will notice how some managers, for example, genuinely listen to and clue in to what those working with them are saying. These are the managers who bring their teams with them on the journey, achieving the same results whilst simultaneously nourishing their own and other’s mental health. You will also notice the alter ego!
By practicing empathy in your workplace, irrespective of your role in the organisation, you will generate it in others. Learn to focus emotionally and cognitively (with a special emphasis on nonverbal cues) when in discussion with colleagues to enrich and enhance your potential.
3. How to manage interpersonal conflicts
Interpersonal conflicts are part of life. None of us can escape from this reality. These conflicts may arise between spouses, siblings, parents and children and even within communities. The workplace, where we spend so much of our lives is inevitably a domain where such conflicts will rear their ugly heads. There can be profound damage done to our mental health if such conflicts become engrained and toxic.
But why do they grow legs? Why can it be so difficult to deal with them? There are many reasons. Human beings are emotional creatures so emotions such as hurt, anger, jealousy amongst others can encourage us to take fixed positions and to delay us trying to sort out the issues involved. We may refuse to look at the conflict from the other party’s point of view or treat it as a ‘personal’ affront rather than assessing the issues rationally. We may be too slow to seek out a mediator to act as a go between and thus allow matters to harden and become more difficult to resolve.
If you are struggling in this area, try to focus especially on how the issue in question is making both you and the person involved feel emotionally. Then try and see why they are thinking, feeling and behaving in the way they are. Put what you learn down on paper and analyse it. Then explore yourself and why it is bothering you. This can often lead to solutions as to how best to overcome such difficulties. Then arrange a meeting and then sometimes with the assistance of a mediator problem solve the issues involved! It is important to quickly try and resolve issues before they do develop legs. Do not be afraid to admit where you yourself may have been in error as this can encourage a more open frank discussion with the party in question.
If you can learn to develop and practice such techniques – many potential conflicts may be avoided. Peace will ensue with significant benefits to the mental health of both parties.
4. How to stop playing the rating game
We live in a world obsessed with self and other rating and nowhere is this more prevalent than in the workplace. Every aspect of our working life is being judged, measured and rated. Difficulties arise when we begin to merge such ratings with personal ratings of ourselves as human beings. I deal with this subject in detail in my latest book Self-Acceptance where I explore the world of rating and how it can negatively impact on our mental health. One key domain that I review is the impact of negative self and other rating on both us as individuals and on the company or business itself.
Ideally, we should cultivate a workplace environment where skills and actions can be sensibly measured/rated and validated and rewarded. But also, one where an ethos of unconditional self-acceptance is fostered. This involves everyone becoming ‘comfortable in their own skins’, refusing to rate themselves as human beings or allowing others to do so, whilst accepting responsibility for their actions. This radical concept could transform many workplaces, making them increasingly effective. Properly managed and understood, rating then becomes constructive rather than destructive.
To develop unconditional self-acceptance, we must challenge on paper over a period of months any occasion where we rate ourselves as failures, or weak or worthless. Can human beings be measured or judged in such a manner. Of course not, as we are all too unique and special. We must also cease allowing others to rate us as human beings. We are however responsible for our behaviour and we are free to rate it as indeed are others. This is a much more challenging concept as it forces us to explore our behaviour and if necessary, change it.
5. How to challenge perfectionism
It is healthy to set reasonable, achievable goals. It is also completely acceptable to set high standards and to strive to reach them. But what happens when you set impossible personal goals and standards? Or identify yourself with the achievement of such goals?
If struggling with perfectionism, you will usually find yourself seeking 100% perfection in some or all areas of life and then rating yourself as a failure as unable to reach these impossible standards. You may find yourself seeking out your imperfections till they are finally all you see. Learning the skill of how to challenge your demand for 100% perfection on paper over a three-month period and ceasing to rate yourself as a failure can transform your life. You must also practice daily for this period creating small imperfections in yourself and learning to adapt to them.
6. How to deal with frustration
So many of us become easily frustrated when situations and life are not turning out the way we wish. You usually want the situation to change but do not want to change matters yourself. The reason is that you will encounter discomfort, something you desperately wish to avoid.
Nowhere can this be more relevant at times than in the workplace where there are countless opportunities to become frustrated with colleagues, customers or indeed ourselves. This can lead to bouts of significant toxic stress and other mental health challenges.
The reality of course is that life is full of discomfort and is also not going to change just to suit us. You must learn to accept short term pain for long term gain. For three months when frustrated about something, on paper, identify what discomfort you are trying to avoid and change your thinking and behaviour to achieve your long-term aim. When you accept with a sense of humour, that the world is not going to change to suit you, you have arrived! This is one of the great resilience skills for life.
For those who would like to explore this further I recommend Emotional Resilience and my most recent book Self-Acceptance (Orion Spring 2019).
About the author:
Dr Harry Barry is author of the bestselling Flagging series. His recent book, Anxiety and Panic, in which he details a revolutionary new approach to the management of panic attacks, phobias and social anxiety, was an international bestseller. Dr Barry’s latest book, Self-Acceptance is published this spring. Harry has almost 40 years’ experience as a medical doctor with most of that spent as a full time GP. He has a long-standing interest in mental health and in improving our understanding of the role of neuroscience in both the cause and treatment of mental health illnesses such as depression, anxiety disorders, addiction and suicide. He retired from general practice in 2013 to focus on mental health and now works on a consultancy basis combining clinical practice, writing, media and public information lectures as well as assisting fellow GPs, nurses and therapists. He is also a member of an international group working on the importance of cognition in depression. His new book, 'Self-Acceptance - How to banish the myth of Self-esteem, develop Unconditional Self-acceptance and revolutionize your mental health’, will be published in early May.