Managing Your Mental Health in the Workplace

As part of Mental Health Week, which goes through this Saturday, October 10th, amge+ aims to raise awareness around the issues surrounding mental illness. Removing the stigma of mental illness is an important step in helping all of us who experience or care about someone who must manage mental illness. Almost half of all Australian adults (45 per cent) will experience mental illness at some point in their life. After heart disease and cancer, mental illnesses are the third most common health problem in Australia. Common types of mental illness are depression, which affects around 15 per cent of adults, anxiety disorders, affecting around 26 per cent of adults, and and bipolar disorder, which affects up to two per cent of the population. While some may find it necessary to take time away from work in order to recover, working while you have a mental illness can actually help your recovery by improving quality of life and providing structure to your daily routine. It’s entirely possible to lead a healthy, fulfilling work life while managing a mental health condition, but it’s important to take care of yourself and actively manage your health. Here’s a look at how to manage mental illness in the workplace.

Learn the symptoms and treat your illness

Of those affected by mental illness, only half receive treatment. Sometimes we don’t recognize the symptoms of mental illness, or we notice symptoms but don’t seek treatment because we feel ashamed. Remember that mental illness is simply an ailment that affects the brain, just as heart disease affects the heart - your body deserves treatment for both of these issues, and there’s no shame in seeking help for either.

Though anxiety is the most common mental health condition in Australia, the symptoms often develop slowly over time and can be hard to identify. There are several types of anxiety, each with their own set of symptoms, including Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Social Phobia, and PTSD, common symptoms include racing heart, tightening of the chest, obsessive thinking, and ‘snowballing’ worries. Though we all feel anxious from time to time, feelings of stress or worry often subside after a while. For those with anxiety, these feelings don’t subside and are often hard to control.

Those with depression will exhibit changes in behaviour such as withdrawing from family and friends, losing interest in enjoyable activities, and having difficulty concentrating. They may also feel guilty, overwhelmed, indecisive, or sad for long periods of time. Physical symptoms include feeling constantly sick or tired, having headaches and muscle pains, and loss or change of appetite (usually accompanied by weight loss or weight gain).

Bipolar disorder is most likely to develop in one’s teens or twenties, but can appear at any age. There are several different types of bipolar disorder, but in general people with bipolar disorder fluctuate between feeling high, over-excited, and reckless and experiencing major lows, where they feel helpless and depressed.

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, talk to your General Practitioner or call one of the many help lines available. Receiving proper treatment from your health care providers is the first step to managing your mental illness.

Develop healthy habits

In order to stay healthy at work, it’s important to develop healthy habits in all aspects of your life. Make sure to get enough sleep, stay physically active, and manage your overall health by scheduling checkups for your eyes, teeth, and general health. Learn to manage your stress and make time for things you enjoy, such as meditation, yoga, listening to music, or spending time with your family. If you know you need to make changes in a lot of these areas, you may be intimidated by the prospect of a major overhaul, or you might not know where to start. Try starting with just one of these areas, and make small changes until you’ve reached your goal. For example, if you want to start eating healthier, try gradually cutting down on your sugar intake. Then, move on to eating more fruits and vegetables. Small, gradual changes are much more manageable - and with each success, you’ll feel motivated to keep going!

Strategies for the workplace

You might consider talking to your employer about your mental illness. This could allow you to ask for support or accommodations such as a change to your schedule or workload. If you’re open with your colleagues as well, you can contribute to reducing the stigma around mental illness. If you don’t feel ready to tell your employer, or you are worried about potential discrimination, you might choose not to disclose your condition. The decision is entirely up to you - this interactive pro/con tool from Heads Up might be useful if you need help deciding.

Developing symptom-specific strategies will help keep you focused on work. Learn everything you can about your symptoms, and think about how you can minimise their effect on your performance. For example, if you have trouble concentrating, you can set timers to keep yourself on track.

Those with anxiety generally prefer to take frequent breaks throughout the day, and might benefit from taking three 20-minute breaks rather than a 60-minute lunch. It’s also a good idea to avoid caffeine before and during work, as the physical symptoms caused by caffeine use (such as increased heart rate, sweaty palms, and ringing in the ears) mirror the symptoms of a panic attack. Sometimes, experiencing these symptoms can actually cause a panic attack, so it’s best to skip the caffeine. People with anxiety can also benefit from meditation, deep breathing, and progressive muscle relaxation as a means of calming themselves. Cognitive-behavioural therapy and exposure therapy can also help you cope with specific anxiety-inducing situations.  

For those with depression, it’s important to find a trusted friend who can provide support when you are feeling down. Setting clear goals - and being realistic about what you can accomplish - can help with concentration issues. Create lists, write down any instructions you receive (so you don’t have to remember them), and remember that setbacks and obstacles are normal. If you start to feel overwhelmed, reflect on the positive aspects of your job, or even the financial security that it brings you.

If you have bipolar disorder, the most important thing you can do is to seek a structured work environment. Avoid shift work or jobs that require long hours, as stress can trigger cycling or mania. It’s also a good idea to avoid alcohol at happy hours and other company events, since alcohol can cause adverse reactions when mixed with commonly prescribed medications for bipolar disorder. On a related note, it’s essential that you take your medication as prescribed. Set a timer or reminder if you tend to forget your medication. Finally, take steps to manage stress (such as relaxation exercises, regular breaks, or listening to relaxing music) to avoid triggering your symptoms. Learn your other triggers so you can seek treatment early and potentially avoid a manic episode. If you have trouble sleeping, or notice feelings of irritability, intense boredom, or frustration with your daily routine, it may be time to call your doctor.

No matter which mental health condition you are managing, or even if you have more than one, it’s important to stay in touch with your doctor and follow their prescribed treatment. Psychological treatments, such as counseling, are often effective for those with anxiety disorders or depression, and medications are sometimes recommended for those with more severe symptoms. And, it’s always good to know your rights in the workplace. Under the Disability Discrimination Act of 1992, you have the right to “reasonable adjustments” as long as you’re able to fulfil the core requirements of your job. These adjustments could include flexible working hours or working from home, reduced workload or modified tasks, and time off from work.

Managing your mental health at work can help you feel fulfilled and maintain financial security during an otherwise stressful time. If you would like more information on mental health services available in Australia, check the Australian Government website or check out the numerous Mental Health Week events that are designed to empower.