We’re all busy. It’s the new normal, so we’d better just suck it up and get on with what needs doing right?
All this continual hustle, jostling and striving to work harder, faster and get more done to achieve success isn’t sustainable. The more we do, the more we create and just like the never empty laundry basket, our mental in-trays keep refilling with more tasks, more emails, more meetings, more stuff. To survive we sacrifice other items deemed less important, even though deep down we feel guilty and mourn their loss.
Where is all this taking us?
To the yellow brick road of happiness and fulfillment?
Or to the brown-out zone, with high levels of stress and increased risk of mental illness and burnout?
In September we celebrate RUOK? Day to reflect on what each and every one of us can do to reduce the risk of suicide and coming up in October we have the world mental health day.
We’re getting good at raising awareness of the growing problem of the need to address mental health problems, but…
We are not winning the battle against mental illness.
Every day an average of 8 Australians will take their life, 6 will be men.
While the risk of developing mental illness is 1:5 for Australian adults in any given 12 months, one recent study examining the mental health of corporate Australia found one-third of those surveyed to be experiencing some form of mental illness broken down as
- 39% having depression
- 37% anxiety
- 24% high stress.
Depression is the leading cause of non-fatal disability and is the third-highest burden of all diseases in Australia.
The statistics are scary, and especially for the younger generation.
Suicide is the leading cause of death for those aged 25 to 44 and the second leading cause of death for those aged 15 to 24.
At a time where we have so much going for us, something is clearly not right when an increasing number of people are being diagnosed with anxiety and depression.
And these are just those who have sought help and advice. It is thought that 54% of those struggling with mental illness don’t seek help.
So, what’s the problem with workplace mental well-being?
From a medical perspective, my observations are that we have underestimated and ignored the impact of chronic levels of high stress on our mental-wellbeing due to
- Heavier workloads
- The expectation of continuous top performance irrespective of stress levels, time poverty, and reduced resources.
- Multiple interruptions leading to loss of focus and time available to complete tasks
- Massive change disrupting many aspects of our lives and work
- Insufficient downtime for rest and recovery
No-one is immune to severe chronic stress. We survive and manage for a while but then it bites, morphing into mental distress, a mood disorder or burnout.
I know, because I’ve previously worn the burnout T-shirt and it’s still hanging in the wardrobe.
And it’s often not a single episode, as I found out this year.
2019 has been incredibly busy, the business has been doing well and being a “doer” and a high achiever, I’ve been doing whatever it takes to stay on top.
When fatigue kicked in, I put it down to frequent travel and working hard. When it didn’t settle, I thought I might have picked up a virus, become anemic or developed an underactive thyroid.
(Doctors are notoriously good at accepting our self-diagnosis and ignoring the obvious)
Despite rest, the fatigue worsened, and my usually sunny mood darkened. My thoughts became ruminative, skewed to the negative and everything felt hopeless.
When I eventually realised what was happening, I knew it was important to take urgent action to avoid falling further into the abyss.
We all have ways of managing our hectic lives and develop strategies to stay well. But equally we can slip into less helpful survival habits, thinking it’s only temporary, but that then becomes our norm.
The following are what I found helpful but the solutions are not one-size-fits-all. It’s about recognising what’s most relevant to you and your self-care, and what you have the greatest confidence into work.
Some of the things I did to reset included
- Eliminating all non-essential tasks and meetings and rescheduling work to spread the load. I quickly got a lot better at saying “No” to requests for additional services and freebies.
- Changing my morning routine on home office days to reduce stress levels and boost well-being by
- Drinking a glass of hot water and lemon on waking to rehydrate and avoid caffeinating my brain too early
- Restarting my meditation practice and ramping it up to 15 minutes twice a day. This made a huge difference to my mood and mindset within a couple of days
- Getting out for a 30-minute walk with the dog in the morning
- Not looking at my mobile phone at all until after starting work and having completed my first task for the day. I’d got into the bad habit of quickly checking emails and the news first thing, cluttering my mind with stuff, that really didn’t warrant my attention. I hadn’t realised the negative effect it was having on my mood.
- Setting a “down-tools” time at the end of the day to signal that was the time to stop any work-related activities.
- Making sure I got at least thirty minutes outside in some fresh air and sunshine either at lunchtime or late afternoon.
- Being physically active – walking, cardio-Pilates for 45 mins to one hour every day.
- Getting enough sleep and extra snooze time as needed.
- Creating tech-free Saturdays (apart from interacting with friends to arrange social activities) to avoid catch-up work.
- Practicing self-compassion. Yes, I had been burnt out once before. Yes, I have experienced anxiety and depression and understand they are unwelcome return visitors. While some might say “surely as a doctor – you “KNOW” about all this and how to avoid it, yes that’s true that the irony of expertise. But I am also human and just as fallible and imperfect as everyone else.
- Reaching out to friends and family. This was the toughest challenge. Staying social when the impulse is to lay low out of sight can be hard but can boost mood and alleviate loneliness, especially when doing something that is fun.
- Diverting my full attention to the important people in my life to be fully present.
Sustainable high performance only works when we factor insufficient downtime for rest and recovery. The tricky part is to know when it’s time to pull back and take a break, but this is how resilience works. Trying to be your own favourite Marvel Hero is nonsense because we are human not a comic character.
The steps you need to take to achieve this are unique to you.
It’s about taking stock of who you are, tapping into your values and giving yourself permission for sufficient self-care to become the better, happier, more fulfilled person you wish to be.
Only then will we as a society start to get better at turning the tide on the misery of burnout, loneliness and mental illness.
Have you been noticing what’s going on around and for you? It’s time to trust the signs if you know things aren’t right and take action – now.
There is no shame in asking for help, but it’s an awful shame if mental illness or burnout means you’re out of action for a while. Life is short, why waste it on stress and over-work?
How do you care for your mental wellbeing and that of those around you?
I’d love to hear your thoughts.
If you or someone you know is at risk of mental illness, help is at hand.
Contact your health practitioner
Lifeline 13 11 14 For Crisis support and suicide prevention www.lifeline.org.au
Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636 www.beyondblue.org.au
Dr. Jenny Brockis is passionate about all things “brain”. She helps businesses and individuals develop and benefit from a brain friendly work culture. As a Medical Practitioner and author of 3 books, Jenny can show you how to improve your mental flexibility and agility necessary to thrive in our increasingly complex world.