October 10th marks World Mental Health Day, an annual global event that aims to break down the stigma that many still feel about discussing mental health. Sobering statistics produced by the Mental Health Foundation highlight just how big the issue is:
- 1 in 6 adults will have experienced a common mental health problem in the last week
- Around 1 in 3 adults in the UK report having experienced a traumatic event in their lifetime
- Depression is predicted to be the leading global illness by 2030
In this article I’d like to focus on psychological first aid – how each of us can provide support and help to friends, family or colleagues who may be suffering in silence. The old adage “it’s good to talk” remains as true today as it ever was, but often we need encouragement to open up about how we’re feeling. Many of the professional people I work with tell me that they feel it is an admission of weakness to ask for help at work and so they soldier on, slowly crumpling under the self-inflicted pressure of attaining perfection. And yet those colleagues who they cite as coping perfectly well may also be struggling, internalising their feelings until inevitably something gives. You should never feel that you’re the only one who feels the way you do; experience tells me that a chat with a trusted colleague will reveal that they have very similar feelings. “A problem shared is a problem halved” is equally true – sharing your feelings and experiences with others will not only unlock a huge sense of relief, but will also provide new ways of looking at things through practical steps your confidante has found useful.
Look out for burnout
Mental health issues will ultimately present themselves in a physical form, and in a stressful profession, sadly ‘burnout’ is all-too common. Described as a sense of physical and emotional exhaustion, burnout often occurs in people who have worked in an emotionally draining role for a considerable period of time. Sound familiar?!
The physical manifestations of burnout can be varied, but if you spot any or all of the following signs in a colleague, it’s time to take them aside for a cup of tea and a chat in the first instance. Equally, you yourself may feel:
- Every day at work is a bad day
- Exhausted much of the time
- No joy or interest in work
- Overwhelmed by the responsibilities of the role
- Engaging in escapist behaviours, such as excessive drinking
- Less patience with others
- Hopeless about life or work
- Physical symptoms (examples may include chest pain, shortness of breath, sleeplessness or heart palpitations, in which case you should see a doctor to get these checked out)
Burnout will not go away on its own; it’s not just a question of plugging away and hoping things will get better – action is required to understand the underlying negative emotions that are causing stress. A good technique for this is ‘The Five Whys’, a simple but effective tool to get to the heart of the problem by repeatedly asking ‘why’ you feel like you do. Your answers should reflect situations and consequences that have actually happened, not those that might have occurred under different circumstances. So, if you can identify that your stress levels are highest when doing a certain task, asking yourself ‘why’ might highlight that the problem is worst when assisted by a particular person. Asking ‘why’ again might show you that it is because you feel you are being judged. ‘Why’ you feel this way might actually be down to a simple difference in communication style, which can easily be addressed by learning to flex your approach.
You might also find it illuminating to keep a stress diary, noting the events and days where you experienced the most stress – spotting patterns and triggers is the first step to addressing them.
At the same time, it’s important to ensure that some basic needs are being met – studies consistently find that insufficient sleep, hydration and exercise all contribute towards low moods and reduced energy levels and can therefore be factors influencing burnout. I’m not suggesting that drinking more water will make everything better, but often taking small steps can drive incremental change and so alongside a twice weekly run, switching off your mobile an hour before bed (trust me, you won’t be missing anything!) and looking for patterns when you feel most low, it can make a real difference.
Each of us has the answers, and the solutions, within us; it’s just that we can’t always see them for ourselves. Which brings us back to where we came in, “it’s good to talk”!
There’s more information, along with links to practical resources to help you maintain positive mental health, at www.mentalhealth.org.uk/campaigns/world-mental-health-day
And if you are affected by the issues discussed in this article but don’t feel you can talk to anybody or take remedial action, please do not suffer alone – confidential help and support can be sought by contacting Samaritans
If you would like to take control of your life and career, my online personal development programme MyLifeStrategy can help you to overcome the personal and professional challenges you face on a daily basis and learn practical skills and techniques to make a real difference to you and your life.
I’ve developed the Thriving Under Pressure module to help you to understand how you currently respond to the stressors in your life, the difference between pressure and stress and give you tools and techniques you can use to put yourself back in control, overcome the stressors and thrive under the pressures you face.