When we think of self-care, we usually think of it as something reserved for our spare time — but there’s room for self-care in the workplace, too. Indeed, it’s actually essential to put into place a few ways to take care of your mental health at work; after all, humans aren’t machines, and stress, anxiety, and depression can rear their difficult little heads on the job just as much as they can in our personal lives. Having some strategies in your back pocket can help you keep a hold on things when they get tough, though, which will ultimately stand both you and your employer in excellent stead in the long run.
According to the nonprofit organization the American Institute of Stress, job stress is “far and away the major source of stress for American adults”; what’s more, that variety of stress has “escalated progressively” in recent decades. But work stress is far from the only kind of stress that people experience; millennials, for example — who a recent survey found are the most stressed generation — find themselves worrying about everything from student loan debt to access to healthcare (which, I mean, is fair). When you’ve got all of those worries layered on top of each other — and when you spend most of your waking hours at work — it becomes even more important than ever to make sure you’ve got some coping mechanisms you can turn to if you start to feel overwhelmed while you’re on the job.
These eight ideas are far from the only options out there, but they’re a good place to start. When in doubt: Take a deep breath. Then figure out to go from there.
1. Step Away For A Moment If You Need To
As any perfectionist/workaholic knows (hi, hello, that's me), it can be difficult to step away from your work when you know it’s not finished; the impulse to believe you need to be working every single minute of the day until everything is done is a hard one to override. But it’s not only OK to step away for a minute every now and again, it can actually help you be more productive in the long run (the oft-cited advice is to take a 17-minute break for every 52 minutes that you work to be your most productive self) — and it has the added bonus of giving you a chance to de-stress a bit if you’re feeling overwhelmed.
So: Step away every so often. Take a walk around the block. Run to the coffee shop downstairs and get yourself a drink or mosey over to the office kitchen and grab a snack. Heck, if there’s literally nowhere else to go, you can even just go to the bathroom or go hang out in the stairwell for a minute. And — most importantly — reassure yourself that it’s OK to do this.
2. Take Your Lunch Break
As behavioral scientist, relationship coach, and creator of Your Happiness Hypothesis Method Clarissa Silva tells Bustle, when you feel overloaded with work, it’s easy to skip meals — either accidentally (because you lost track of time) or intentionally (because you feel like you need to use every minute you have to plow through your to-do list). However, says Silva, “Not having proper amounts of caloric intake or hydration leads to declined mental health, which makes us more irritable at what is an already stressful situation.”
The solution? No matter how stressed you feel, make sure you set time aside to eat lunch. You can’t do what you need to do without fuel. Plus, let’s not forget that it’s called a lunch break for a reason: Taking lunch also gives you a few minutes to decompress away from work. Remember that whole “stepping away for a moment if you need to” thing? Scheduling a regular lunch break can help with that.
3. Decorate Your Workspace
You don’t have to go HAM on the place if that’s not your style (although if it is, go forth), but there’s definitely value in making your workspace a pleasant place to be. If you’ve got a desk, cubicle, or office, hang a few pictures that make you happy — whether they’re photos of friends and loved ones or (work-appropriate) posters for some of your favorite interests or hobbies — add a few ornaments you like, keep a plant if you’ve got a green thumb, or fill your pencil jar with your favorite kind of writing implement.
If your job isn’t the kind that comes with a desk, get creative: Do you have a toolbox? Add some decals to it. Is your dress code flexible? Add an enamel pin or two to your shirt, apron, lapel, or hat. Having a few things around that just make you happy when you see them can put you in a more positive state of mind.
4. Let Yourself Feel Whatever You Feel, Even If You’re At Work While You’re Feeling It
Many workplaces frown on workers expressing negative emotions; as Susan David, author of the book Emotional Agility, told The Atlantic in 2017, it’s something of a “throwback to the industrial age,” when organizations viewed people as machines, rather than as, y’know, people. But there’s ample evidence to suggest that suppressing negative emotions in the workplace does more harm than good — and that, as Amy Edmondson’s work on “psychological safety” shows, being able to talk about fears, failures, and other negatively coded issues actually leads to better performing teams.
What’s more, it moves beyond productivity and performance: Research has found that acknowledging negative emotions is actually key for our well-being — something which remains true even when you’re at work. So if you’re feeling frustrated, stressed, or overwhelmed on the job? Don’t force yourself to hide it. Feeling negative emotions or even crying at work isn’t something anyone needs to feel bad about; in fact, just saying to yourself, “Yes, I feel frustrated and upset right now, and that’s OK” can help you take care of yourself on the job.
5. Practice Scripts For Excusing Yourself
That said, it’s totally understandable if you don’t like to cry at work — but it’s also worth remembering that the fear of getting visibly emotional on the job can also be a source of stress all its own. Indeed, according to one recent survey, many people tend to feel shame or embarrassment about crying at work — so if you’re already stressed more generally, the added worry that you might break down in front of your colleagues can sometimes be exactly the thing that pushes you over the edge.
For folks who have that particular worry, it can help alleviate it to have some techniques for excusing yourself prepared, just in case you need them. As Jennifer Peepas of the excellent advice site Captain Awkward once recommended to a letter writer in search of advice on how to keep it together at work when you’re depressed, “Practice a script for keeping your voice very calm as you say ‘Excuse me, I’ll be back in a moment’ (and then go to the bathroom, to get a glass of water, take a quick walk around the building) or ‘Excuse me, let’s pick this discussion up after I’ve had a chance to check some figures, thanks’ — a couple of stock phrases that (get you physically away) + (buy you some time) = help you compose yourself.”
Practicing scripts you can deploy if you happen to be around other people when you feel like you might need a moment can go a long way towards easing any anxiety you might have about crying in front of your coworkers.
6. Use Cognitive Rewards To Help Build Good Habits
Clarissa Silva’s Your Happiness Hypothesis Method uses “cognitive re-shifting techniques” in order to help you overcome barriers at work that may have prevented you from succeeding in the past and build good habits — habits that can include ways to manage and cope with stress, anxiety, a lack of energy, and more.
“Create a journal that documents every micro goal that you plan and achieve,” Silva recommends. “That can be from starting with two minutes of meditation/destressing and progressing to five minutes, noticing physical changes… or being empowered to step away from the stress source.” According to Silva, “These incremental changes create cognitive conditioning that will associate your new behavior with your ideal version of you.”
7. Chat With Your Co-Workers Every Now And Again
No, you don’t have to be best friends with your co-workers, and yes, workplace boundaries are important. However, having at least some sort of support system at work matters — and being friends with a colleague or two makes for both happier and more productive employees.
What does that mean in practice? Well, it depends on how both you and your co-workers tend to handle interpersonal relationships; you might periodically chat about something that isn’t work-related when you’re at lunch, running out for coffee, or even just taking a quick break at another time during the day. (It’s not called “water cooler chat” for nothing.)
There are etiquette rules to follow, of course; keep the conversation work-appropriate (don't be this person, or this one, or...) don’t try to chat up folks who are clearly busy, and keep it brief. Still, though — when you’ve got a bit of human connection going on, you might find yourself in a better place both mentally and emotionally.
8. Use Your Vacation Time
American workplaces tend to be absurdly Puritanical, with many employees feeling like taking vacation time is seen as a weakness — but if vacation time is included in your compensation package, you are absolutely entitled to use it. There are loads of health benefits to taking your vacation days, from lowered stress levels to increased happiness; the same is true of unplugging, so unless your job requires you to be on call even when you’re not working, disconnect while you’re away.
And even if you don’t get paid vacation and you need a break, you might still try asking for some unpaid time off if it’s doable for you from a financial standpoint. Everyone needs to recharge every now and again; without it, burnout can strike hard.
Your mental health matters all the time — not just in your spare time — and you deserve to have the space to take care of yourself. And, hey, if it all starts to feel like Just Too Much, don't hesitate to reach out to a mental health professional for help. Here are some pointers on how to find a therapist that's right for you; you can also give these free and low-cost mental health resources a try. Because you're definitely, definitely worth it.