As we head into the new working year, many of us are keen to preserve the holiday afterglow and the relaxed state and lower stress levels that come after time off the job.
There are a few ways you could do this. You could quit your job, although you’ll want to make sure you have lined up someone to pay your bills. Or you could take a week off every month, but your boss is unlikely to agree to sign off on that one. You could also try to change how you respond to the stressors you encounter at work.
Mentally healthy workplaces are something a growing number of Australian businesses are striving to create. While it is employers who need to do much of the heavy lifting when it comes to creating a working environment that fosters good mental health, employees do have a role to play.
Building resilience is one way we can all reduce our stress at work and contribute to a more mentally healthy workplace, says Dr Sam Harvey, a psychiatrist with Black Dog Institute.
“Enhancing resilience removes the notion that employees are passive recipients of workplace stress without anything they can do about it,” Harvey says.
Building a mentally healthy workplace
Harvey is also head of the Workplace Mental Health Research Group (a partnership between The Black Dog Institute and UNSW), which recently released a report focusing on ways to improve mental health in the workplace. It recommended the following strategies to help do so:
- Smarter work design eg building in flexibility in working roles and working hours
- Build better work cultures eg ensuring change is managed in an inclusive manner
- Build resilience eg providing resilience training, coaching and mentoring, and physical activity programs
- Early intervention eg providing stress management programs and access to Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs)
- Support recovery eg having flexible sick leave arrangements and providing return-to-work programs.
- Increase awareness eg providing mental health education and training
What is resilience?
Resilience is someone’s ability to bounce back in the face of challenges or some sort of trauma.
Whether or not a person develops psychological stress (or a mental health condition) at work depends on the balance between their exposure to stress and their coping resources, Harvey says. So if the level of stress is too large for a person’s coping resources, they can run into trouble.
On the other hand, resilient people have strong resources and skills to manage stress and conflict as well as a good support network to help them deal with the pressures of work.
“We know that resilient people bounce back and don’t get ill where others would in the face of psychological stressors,” Harvey says.
Resilience is more than coping however. Resilient people are also flexible, adapt to new and different situations, learn from experience, are optimistic and ask for help when they need it.
How can workplaces help employees enhance their resilience?
Workplaces can help to promote resilience in their employees. The report recommends the following strategies:
Resilience training programs
These types of programs can help you to deal with work-related stresses and challenges in a way that is better for your mental health.
Coaching and mentoring
Coaching and mentoring are specific relationships that are helpful in developing resilience. Coaching focuses on improvement in current performance, skill and wellbeing while mentoring supports longer-term skills and career development.
Physical activity programs
It’s well-known exercise is good for your mental health, but there’s also evidence that promoting physical activity in the workplace can help improve employee mental health and resilience.
How can people enhance their own resilience?
When it comes to building your resilience, Harvey says there are some factors, such as genetics and personality type, which are beyond your control. But there are a range of factors you can change, even if you might need some help for some.
Thinking and coping styles
Psychologist and executive coach Naomi Harrison says: “The way you think about challenges can help you build resilience and well-being at work”.
Harrison recommends practising the following strategies to build resilient thinking:
- Think about what is working well. This can help problems seem smaller and empower you to act.
- Remind yourself of previous accomplishments – both big and small. For example, ask yourself: When have you had success coping dealing with a problem in the past? What did you do that made it successful? Can you use any of those strategies to the current issue? This type of thinking can help increase your confidence and help you feel empowered.
- Break issues into smaller chunks and smaller goals. Smaller goals make it easier to see progress and can motivate you to persist through challenges.
- Focus on what is in your control and act on that.
- Be prepared for mistakes or setbacks to happen. When mistakes happen, see them as problems to be solved and shift your attention to working out how to overcome the issue.
As well as building resilient thinking, Harrison also stresses the importance of getting some space and taking breaks.
“Taking a break can help you see problems differently and help you come up with alternative ways to cope with issues.”
Do things you enjoy outside of work. The workplace mental health report noted: “There is good evidence that individuals who engage in regular leisure time activity, have a healthy weight and a balanced diet are at decreased risk of future episodes of mental illness.”
Harvey says exercise also helps at a biological level to reduce stress and improve resilience. “People who are physically fit have a different physiological reaction to stress.”
He says they can also have an altered emotional response to stress as well.
“The evidence shows people who are more physically active are protected against common mental health problems.”
Having a support network, both in and out of the workplace, is also very important in developing resilience.
“There is strong evidence that, even in difficult workplace situations with difficult jobs and not much control, if you feel good and supported, then that buffers the effect of difficult situations,” Harvey says.
Supportive relationships in and out of work are critical for building resilience, agrees Professor Lindsay Oades, a senior researcher at the Centre for Health Initiatives at the University Wollongong.
“Good relationships can help people increase a sense of belonging, confidence and self worth. They can also help people cope with the stress of work and cope better with challenges,” Oades says.
“We are biologically social creatures. Positive relationships are a big predictor of positive emotions, a sense of wellbeing and an ability to deal with adversity.”
On the other hand, isolation and lack of supportive relationships denies us positive emotions.
“We see that with unemployed people. They become separated from others and can develop depression and anxiety.”
So too, people without strong relationships at work can struggle.
“In workplaces, networking is seen as instrumental, so too is seeking out friendships. This is not just nice, but a necessity.”