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Mental illness is a pervasive problem in the workplace. 85% of Canadian employers and 94% of U.S. employers report that they have a highly stressed workforce — and this isn’t new. While stigma against mental illness is still strong, more employees are taking medical leaves for mental health reasons and employers are starting to pay attention. As a bilingual vocational counsellor in the mental health field, I see individuals at every organizational level experiencing mental health issues — from executives to entry level workers.
According to the Canadian Medical Association, one in five Canadians suffer from depression and this has a huge impact on the workplace. Not everyone living with mental illness faces the same kinds of struggles, but for some, living with a mental illness can be debilitating, affecting daily life at work and at home. Many mental health service providers often concentrate on recovery as an achievable model. When it comes to the workplace, this means understanding your triggers and planning for the worst and the best.
If you have started a new job, or are having difficulty keeping one, because of a mental illness, we in the mental health field often recommend creating a self-care plan.
Here are things to take into consideration when making a mental health self-care plan and preparing yourself to succeed at work:
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1. Early warning signs
Are you more sensitive than normal toward your coworkers’ behaviours or remarks, or your supervisor’s comments? Are you more emotionally charged at work? Check in with yourself regularly so that you understand your triggers and risk factors.
These include events that may have led to the crisis or state of being out of control. Pressing deadlines, unrelenting demands from customers, workers continuing to call in sick or not carry the load? All of these are potential workplace triggers for anxiety and depression. Afterward, things tend to spiral out of control at work, until you have a meltdown or complete loss of control.
3. Coping Strategies
How do you cope with panic attacks or severe bouts of depression? Don’t wait until it’s too late. Get support from a trustworthy coworker or mentor, or even your supervisor, and let them know you are struggling. Maybe there is a way to manage your workload easier. In the meantime, get the supports you need.
Replace “unhealthy coping strategies” with healthy coping strategies. The unhealthy strategies may include drug or alcohol abuse or gambling. Other unhealthy coping strategies, may be behavioural such as isolation and spending sprees; these can be tell tale signs that things are going awry.
4. Negative Self-Talk
As humans, we’re often our own worst critics. In the worst case scenario, it might involve someone who thinks he’s about to lose his job or believes that he cannot keep a job beyond a certain time. Beware of these self-defeating thoughts. Challenge the information in those thoughts. Is the information based on your opinion or perception, rather than facts? Is the information true 100% of the time? Consider replacing them with more productive thoughts. Try to engage in distraction activities or make an effort to push away negative thoughts.
If you feel discouraged at work, focus on pleasant events to “reframe” your negative thoughts. Reframing techniques, which we often use in mental health, are designed to turn negative thoughts into a positive outlook sensations. It’s also beneficial to focus on events that give you pleasure, such as family gatherings, or memorable vacations. Make a mental note of accomplishments on the job, and then record them as milestones for the end of the year.
5. Crisis Planning
Who would you call in a crisis? What would you want your supports to be told or know? Make use of 24/7 crisis lines. Map out a plan and share your crisis plan with your circle of care.
In the meantime, a good game plan is to create a daily maintenance list to stay well. For example, proper sleep, nutrition, exercise, supports such as friends, family and pets. For best results, practice these strategies when you are not in a crisis to develop and rafine these skills. And most importantly, take care of yourself.