Q: How do mental health issues like stress and anxiety impact professionals in the workplace?
A: Mental health issues impact any and every area of an individual’s functioning. I have always held steadfast in the belief that we can only be as healthy as our mental health, as everything else grows from there. Just as a tree cannot grow sturdy without strong roots, we cannot grow and flourish without sound mental health. So, how can we expect professionals to be effective and productive in the workplace if they’re experiencing high levels of anxiety and stress? When we experience debilitating levels of stress and anxiety, negative effects can include forgetfulness, distraction, impulsive and irritable behavior, and all around low productivity.
However, I also want to emphasize that anxiety, when kept at manageable and healthy levels, is actually helpful and needed. I know that may seem counterintuitive, but there are very clear positive effects of stress and anxiety, especially in the workplace. Anxiety has the ability to signal to us the importance of an event, which can then be used as a means of motivation and preparation for performance. For example, an employee may feel anxious about an upcoming deadline, which, in turn, keeps them focused on the task at hand and motivated to work his/her/their hardest.
Q: What are some of the red flags that indicate that the anxiety and stress that are being experienced at work are not normal?
A: One major indicator is when an individual experiences significant changes in mood and behavior. Examples of mood and behavior changes may include:
Feeling depressed and sad
Short with others
These changes would need to be noticeable and observable by yourself and others, have a negative impact on your relationship with yourself and others, and remain constant for a significant amount of time. Of course, as humans, there are going to be days when we can oscillate between moods moment to moment, but these would be pretty drastic and observable changes in mood and behavior both at work and in your personal life over an extended period of time.
Another indicator is when an individual experiences severe disruptions to normal routines, such as eating, sleeping, exercising, socializing, or any other individual specific daily or weekly routines. Common disruptions may include:
Inability to eat or sleep
Finding it difficult to get yourself out of bed in the morning
Socially isolating yourself from the people you love and care about
Partaking in excessive partying, including a significant increase in alcohol and/or drug use, as a means to self-medicate and numb
Increasing exercise to an obsessive amount, which can also be used as a means to self-medicating and numb
Ceasing exercise completely
Of course, as with any mental health issues, these changes would need to be consistent and long term. If you are experiencing a particularly stressful time due to situational circumstances that cause changes to your normal routine for a couple of days or weeks or even a month from time to time, please remember that is, unfortunately, an inevitable part of life and to be expected every now and then. At some point or another, all of us have or will find ourselves in situations and circumstances where we need to adapt and find our new normal – a new set of routines that help to manage and balance our responsibilities. It is at moments like these when we have to be extra kind and compassionate to ourselves and our colleagues and to accept and understand that it may take some time before we find our footing.
Q: What are some tips on how to manage short-term stress and anxiety while at work and while at home?
A: The quickest and most effective way to manage short-term stress and anxiety, whether at work or home, is through the breath. In yoga, we call the breath, pranayama, which translates to vital life force. In essence, it reminds us that our breath connects everything. Being conscious about our breath helps us stay present and mindful and has a positive effect on our mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing. When we breathe consciously, meaning we focus on our breath, we activate the cerebral cortex, which has a calming effect on our emotions. For immediate results, sit with a straight back and your two feet firmly planted on the ground. Put one hand on your stomach and the other hand on your chest. If you feel uncomfortable doing this in public, you can keep your hands comfortably in your lap, preferably with palms facing upward. Close or lower your eyes to minimize exterior distraction. Inhale deeply through your nose, allowing your breath to fill your stomach and expand into your hands. Then exhale slowly through the mouth as the stomach deflates. You should feel a noticeable change within 3 minutes if you continue this rhythm.
Another tip for managing short-term stress and anxiety is engaging in an activity that brings you joy, whether that’s watching TV, hanging out with your family or friends, going to the gym, doing yoga, dancing, painting, meditation, playing sports, etc. Engaging in an activity where there’s movement has the added benefit of releasing endorphins, which help increase overall feelings of wellbeing, but any activity that makes you feel good is a natural stress reliever. Engaging in an extracurricular activity is particularly helpful because, like conscious breathing, it is a method through which you are being mindful and present.
The key to managing stress and anxiety is always through being present. When we feel stressed or anxious, we either fear something that has happened in the past or fear something that may or may not happen in the future. Anxiety and stress never exist in the present moment, only in the fabrication of our mind. This is why meditation is so beneficial, because it is the practice through which we learn to quiet, calm, and take control over our wandering and overstimulated minds.
And, of course, I have to mention how beneficial and helpful it can be to receive support from a helping professional. Sometimes, all we need is an objective third party to help us see a new perspective that may forever change our lives for the better.
Q: Should I tell my employer about my stress/anxiety?
A: This is a tricky question to answer because each person has a unique situation and relationship to their employer. For that reason, I can’t offer a blanket answer, but I will say that, in general, employees who have an open and communicative relationship with their employer tend to be happier in the workplace. And as with all communication, there is always a time and place and effective and strategic ways of conveying information and/or feelings.
Q: What should I do if I have a co-worker or employer who is causing my stress/anxiety? Should I consider changing jobs?
A: Again, each person is going to have a unique situation, so I can’t offer a blanket answer. I think almost everyone, myself included, can recall a time when we worked with or for someone that we didn’t necessarily get along with or caused us stress. Unfortunately, this is a part of life, and it’s important that we build the coping skills and techniques necessary to be able to work with a variety of people. That being said, some of us find ourselves in unhealthy working environments, which may require initiative for making a change. In many cases, there are most likely many helpful steps one can take before having to change jobs. However, all cases and individuals are different.