Five steps to go from 'mental illness' to 'mental wellness' at work

Satisfaction at work requires awareness, willingness and action--and some easy changes to your routine

Updated: Apr 30, 2019 12:25:38 PM UTC

Juhi Parmar is psychologist & outreach associate at Mpower -The Centre.

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock

Workplaces today are teeming with dissatisfaction. Dissatisfaction with work timings, with the mismatch between your job description and the work you’re doing, with your boss’ leadership style, even with the coffee that the machine spurts. In fact, lately, scores of research papers are focused on stress, incidence of depression, anxiety, and substance use at the workplace.

I’ve noticed through my psychology practice and corporate workshops, however, that knowing about the ill-effects of something may not necessarily deter you from those behaviours or habits. It’s what we call the optimism bias: The idea that bad things happen to others. Repulsive cancer warnings on cigarette packets dissuade a starved margin; despite drinking and driving warnings, about 10,000 people die every year due to alcohol-related accidents. No doubt, knowing the ill-effects of depression, anxiety, and stress has created awareness in identifying the need for professional help. However, it has also scared and immunised a large percentage of the population into denial, leading to half-hearted attempts at making changes.

What we need to also focus on is mental wellness. “How do I achieve this?” rather than “How do I avoid this?”. A perspective that promotes self-exploration and climbing the ladder (corporate and otherwise) to satisfaction. I choose the word ‘satisfaction’ because I’ve found that our generation today (raises hand, guilty too) is afflicted with the ‘dissatisfaction syndrome’. We’re constantly looking for something more--more passion, more meaning, more gain--the need to switch jobs, make huge career leaps, have multiple projects running simultaneously.

It is these expectations and pressures that I speak to.

1. Transform your relationship with work
A lot of marriages/relationships become strained over time because of the weight of expectations from that one relationship: That your partner should be your companion, protector, shoulder to cry on, best friend. Similarly, we have unrealistic expectations from our jobs: That it must offer a sense of purpose, pay bills, be directly relevant to our education, and enjoyable. These expectations from one single activity are often hard to meet and sustain. Instead, try creating a realistic roadmap of where you are and where you would like to be. Identify the contribution of your job in your larger sense of identity, and configure your mindset and attitude towards work according to that--you’ll find yourself feeling more content.

2. Find your dedication, the passion will follow
I’ve come by misleading promises about “work not feeling like work” recently. There is this idea that “if you’re not enjoying every minute of what you’re doing, you’re in the wrong job”. Everything that requires repetition and discipline is work. Expect and accept that work entails monotony and dedication, and you will notice a shift from feeling like a victim to in control of your life.

3. Strengthen relationships to improve performance
Think about that time your colleague saved you your favourite food at lunch. Or walked up to your desk to share a joke. Or complimented you on a good presentation. Human contact makes us feel like we belong. It boosts motivation to work, helps us grow roots and adds to our holistic identity at the organisation. So try and make an effort to remember birthdays and anniversaries. Pay compliments. Make eye contact and smile. It really is as simple as that.

4. Colour your workspace to enhance productivity
While enveloped in shades of grey and beige, a vibrant blue or sunny yellow stand out. Colour psychology focuses on the impact of colours on human emotions and physiology. Colour has been found to enhance self-expression, uplift the mood, and even boost productivity. This doesn’t require an office renovation--you can simply start by personalising your desk, dressing up to work, maybe setting up plants around your workspace: Money plants, bamboo shoots or cacti are easy to manage.

5. Be mindful commuters 
Exhibit A: You’re commuting at peak-hour in a crowded train. People around you cannot seem to respect personal space, and have been closing in. The pollution does not help, and every single sound irks you. You feel helpless and angry, thinking, “Why does this happen to me?” On reaching office, you constantly exercise self-control not to snap at someone, have a headache, feel distracted. And your inattentive, edgy state has not gone unnoticed by your superiors.

Exhibit B: Everything happens exactly as in Exhibit A. But your commute time is “me time”. You listen to music or podcasts during this period, catch up on news, meditate (Try Headspace, Calm) and on days of longer commute, you watch videos on your online course, or chat to someone next to you. You get to work in a calm or energised state, greet everyone, and share fun facts and opinions with peers and bosses.

Which would you rather be? Satisfaction at work requires awareness, willingness and action. Weigh your expectations, rethink your attitudes, and choose well (-ness).

The author is psychologist & outreach associate at Mpower -The Centre.

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