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How to recognise and look after mental health

13 September 2019

When people are working in the charity communications sector, they are often inspired to perform well and tasked with unrelenting deadlines. This combination of feeling motivated and pressured to keep working hard for the cause can be rewarding but can also lead to stress and burnout.

Recently there has been a bigger focus on the impact of mental health at work. In 2017 the Government-backed ‘Thriving at work report’ identified that poor mental health costs employers up to £42 billion a year. And the report recommends that all employers should adopt six mental health core standards, including charities. It’s important to remember that you have a responsibility for your mental health, but your employer should be effectively supporting this too.

Here are common indicators of poor mental health:

Stress and anxiety

When you feel stressed, your body is triggering an internal response to push you to take action. The brain is activating nerves and hormones like adrenaline and cortisol to protect you against a potential threat. In modern life these threats could include a big deadline or having to give a presentation. Some degree of life pressure is normal and helps you get up in the morning but when a large amount of stress is happening on a daily basis, this can be damaging.

Warning signs

What are some of the common warning signs of stress? Being unable to wind down or relax, feeling anxious, working every day (including weekends), and dreading work. Physical symptoms could include headaches, stomach problems, tight chest, throat or jaw.

If you’re being affected by a number of these regularly, your body is telling you that you need to make some healthy long-term changes (read on for tips).

Workplace culture

The culture of your organisation can have a big impact on how you’re feeling. You may be working in an environment where there is a sense of cohesion and people feel able to speak up and be supported. Having trusted conversations where you can share openly is really helpful. If you don’t feel you can trust anyone where you work, then this is a warning sign that either you’re not in a safe trusting environment (which is concerning) or this could be a pattern of how you relate to people – maybe see a counsellor about this.

Workplace bullying can be defined as spreading a malicious rumour or regularly undermining a colleague. The key thing to look out for is a pattern of behaviour. If you notice that a colleague is repeatedly, unfairly treated this could be bullying or harassment (which in some cases, is unlawful). You can help by listening to your colleague, suggest they make a note of dates, what happened, and how they felt about it. If they gather information (by recording face-to-face meetings or email etc) they could approach their line manager, HR or ACAS if they are unable to resolve things informally.

You are part of developing the culture of the organisation you work for. By supporting your colleagues and speaking up on ethical matters, you’re influencing your environment.

Difficult content

The content that people are working with can often produce strong reactions. Sometimes it’s specifically created to encourage people to donate or raise awareness, such as posts on social media or working with case studies. These feelings can be intensified if it’s a particularly harrowing subject or the issues have personally affected you. Having personal experience can give you valuable insight but if it’s not approached thoughtfully it could have a harmful impact and, in extreme cases, be re-traumatising. Try and be conscious of what you’re feeling when working on particular campaigns and take time to reflect and support yourself.

Now that you have some insight into the indicators of poor mental health, how can you ensure that you look after your mental health?

Finding balance

Seven tips for better mental health

Work-life balance

Take breaks from work and try not to get caught up in emails when you have time off. Consciously create spaces where you feel safe. Find activities outside of work that you enjoy and help you not to think about work (eg. yoga or running).

Support at work

When people are experiencing mental health issues (such as depression) four in five UK workers say that support from their employer could help them recover more quickly. Think about the support network that’s in place and what else could be offered. Charities could adopt a tiered approach depending on the severity of the issue. From line manager training and formalised peer support, to a high-quality employee assistance programme and counselling.

Personal life

Ask if this gives you a chance to escape or if this also feels troublingly pressured?

Coping strategies

Consider your go-to’s in your day-to-day life, especially when you’re stressed. If you’re regularly reaching for things that probably won’t help in the long-term – like alcohol, drugs, junk food and even work itself – think about how you can address this. Try not to be afraid to ask if you need more support – Adfam.org has a list of useful organisations.

Healthy lifestyle

Having a healthy diet and taking part in regular exercise can help improve your wellbeing. Sleep is another important factor and preparing to sleep (eg. through guided meditation or a regular routine) is really beneficial.

Nature

A recent landmark study showed the benefits of having 120 minutes a week in nature for improved health and wellbeing. A research base is growing to show how important it is to get outside and into green spaces.

Screen time

If your role involves a lot of digital technology then allowing yourself to take breaks is important. If you find that you’re closing your laptop to then just pick up your phone, your brain is not getting much of a break from the onslaught of information. If your role involves ‘on call’ work, then it’s even more vital that you take breaks from the screen because your brain is frequently being alerted to potential threats –such as a troll.

Try turning off your phone at 9pm, not having it in your bedroom and having a screen-free day on Sunday. Getting into a routine and adjusting your lifestyle is a much easier way to make a long-term change.


Remember:

Consider work as part of the picture of your overall mental health. What’s good, what’s not and how can you influence this? Try and put down the unrealistic expectation of being perfect or always doing more. Remember you are a finite resource that needs support to thrive too!


Helen Breakwell

qualified counsellor and founder , Wellspring Therapy Service