Our Mental Health Is At Risk, but What Can We Do?

I’m 25 years old, I’m settled in my second job and in my third year of work (when I say work I mean 9-5, salary-type, ‘career’ work); no one is having my head if something goes drastically wrong at the office, no one is paying the big bucks to poach me and I’m not in constant negotiations to up my salary on account of me potentially leaving. In other words, I’m a cog in the wheel – valued but not replaceable, liked but not indispensible.  

Why then when I look around is everyone “stressed”, “too busy”, “drained” and “overworked”. Why are people “worried”, “anxious” and “getting grey hairs”? All phrases, incidentally, I’ve heard from more than a few of my friends. If we are young, inexperienced, disposable, why are we acting as though we’re in our forties with mortgage repayments and on the brink of redundancy?

No doubt many of us grew up complaining that our parents work too hard, questioning why they’re working overtime when they’re not being paid for it and vowing never to end up like them.

And now look where we are: we’re working long hours during the day, before heading to bed, where our brains hurtle us through sleepless nights so that we wake up feeling more tired than when we went to bed, and come Friday and a couple of pints down, we’re falling asleep at the bar. Then, of course, all our other anxieties kick in: stay awake! Have fun! Don’t be boring, have another drink! And because we’re adamant that tiredness won’t beat us, that’s exactly what we do.

Hello horrible Mondays.

A recent survey estimates that the number of sick days lost to “stress, depression and anxiety” increased by 24% between 2009 and 2013. Companies are more than aware of the hours lost as a result of their staff being overworked and in response many are introducing policies and programmes (wellness weeks and meditation evenings come to mind) to help workers cope better with stress and anxiety. Some companies have gone as far as introducing four-day weeks and ‘no emails after work’ policies. Well intentioned of course, but are they really dealing with the larger issues at hand – the stress, the anxiety, and the depression?

I’m not convinced. I think the wellness workshops, the mindfulness and meditation classes etc. can serve to trivialise and devalue the bigger picture problems, giving the impression that this is all it takes to relieve employees’ anxieties. I understand that doing exercise, slowing down, being mindful etc. go a long way in contributing to and even shaping our health and happiness, but just because your company gives you free juices once a week, it doesn’t make up for the fact that you’re working on a Sunday, again.

Alleviating stress at work doesn’t come from introducing corporate policies; it starts, I think, with relationships.

We all know that a good relationship with our team and with our managers allows us to flourish. We’re happier, more eager and determined to do well. We feel a greater sense of optimism and confidence in our abilities and this shines through in the quality of our work. It’s great. Having a good relationship with our work mates is great.

A bad relationship (or just generally people being a**holes), on the other hand, can make life at work utterly unbearable. Being asked to do something that you know is totally unreasonable, being shouted at when a quiet word would have done, being ignored when you deserved praise, is the opposite of great. It’s horrible. Consequently, we feel horrible, undervalued and underappreciated. Our work rate slows as we become less and less confident in our abilities, anxieties run high and we find ourselves falling into bouts of sleeplessness, early morning stresses and, probably, more midweek boozing; bad relationships are rubbish.

So, what is it we’re asking for? It’s pretty simple really: One to one communications, human connections, people being real, compassionate individuals, that’s what’s important. Not so-called wellness weeks or this ‘no email’ tosh, and certainly none of this ‘quarter life crisis’ crap, please. If we’re aiming to relieve workplace anxieties, being empathic might be a valuable first step. And given the stigma of mental health remains rife (while wellness sits smugly in the spotlight), this is now more urgent than ever.

Author: Bonnie Stuart

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