How your Job can Damage your Mental Health (and what to do about it)

Jordan* was struggling to breathe. He felt like he was about to pass out or explode. Nothing specific had happened that day, if it had been the first time he might have wondered if he was having a heart attack. As it was, he knew he had to get out of the office fast, he beelined for the bathroom, grateful that it was empty. He knew something was wrong. He’d had a physical recently, his blood pressure was high, but there was nothing else wrong with him. When he spoke to his doctor about these episodes, his doctor had said that they sounded like panic attacks, stress related anxiety. Jorden felt like this was ‘doctor speak’ for “it’s all in your head.” He felt embarrassed that he had even brought it up. Now though, he knew something had to change. This was the third time this week and he was pretty sure people were starting to notice. He couldn’t afford sick time or vacation time, it was year end, ‘crunch time,’ and he for sure couldn’t leave his job. He knew his manager would not be helpful. Last year, when the receptionist took an extended absence after her grandmother died, there was a lot of eye rolling and talk about ‘excuses’ and ‘people looking for ways to get out of working.’ Jordan didn’t want to be seen as one of those people. He got enough flack when he opted out of coming in on the weekend with the people on his team who wanted to get a head start on their project. 

*Not intended to represent any particular person or situation.

There are many reasons why our jobs can interfere negatively with our mental health. Even if we love our work, we can lose balance in our lives and we can burn out. When we don’t love our jobs and/or if we are experiencing workplace bullying, this can compound the issues. Not being able to make enough to survive or thrive can also cause stress. Here are some ways to address issues in your working life that may be negatively affecting your mental health:

 

Work/Life Balance

When work is creeping into other important areas of your life, such as time with friends and family, sleep time, relaxation time, vacation time, etc. then, no matter how much you love it, it needs to be put into its place.

Unrealistic expectations

Unrealistic expectations about the amount of work completed, about timelines, availability, etc. can come from supervisors, managers, customers, clients and even from yourself. Often it comes from more than one place. It’s important to figure out what others actually expect of you versus how much you are putting on yourself. If the expectations of others do not fit with a balanced life where you have time to physically and mentally rest, connect with others, engage in fun activities, etc. then you might need to determine where and how you can set boundaries for yourself. If you fear losing your job by setting boundaries, check out your rights as an employee at Employee Standards and see if you are backed by law. If there is no law backing it, do your best to argue for reasonable work loads and hours, find others who share your thoughts to work on this with you. Research evidence of the benefits of work/life balance to present to those in power at your workplace, this can be particularly effective if it touches on your field of work.

If any of the unrealistic expectations for performance and work load are coming from you, you may need some help to figure out what a reasonable load looks like in your workplace. Many people would not hold others to the same standards that they hold themselves and it can take some time and effort and sometimes the help of a counsellor to figure out where this expectation comes from and how to let it go. (See The Rat Race Ain’t Made for Humans – Get out in 4 easy 😉 steps).

Not enough pay

When your full time job does not adequately cover your living expenses and/or leave any room for relaxation, the result can be a lot of chronic stress. For some, adding side gigs results in all recovery/ relationship/ down times being eaten up and increased fatigue, irritability and illnesses. Overtime and extra shifts can also do this.

Consider asking for a raise, advocating for higher wages, to your employer. If you are publicly employed this might mean union work, or petitioning the government.

If wages cannot be raised, you can start by looking at what is important to you. If you don’t care about having a nice car, or any car, you might consider car sharing, using the bus more, cycling, Sharing space with others can alleviate financial stress, but sometimes brings other kinds of stress. Check out Lonely? Let’s Move Closer for more on community living.

Lack of resources to do your job

This is particularly true in public services and non profit organizations. When the workload/need is so great and there is never enough time or resources, the weight of this lands on each individual worker. In response, sometimes we blame clients/patients/students, etc. for trying to scam the system to get their needs met and end up becoming gatekeepers instead of advocating for better resources and policy changes at higher levels. Advocacy is work, in and of itself, and requires connecting with others, finding out who is already working on these things while still setting good boundaries for yourself. (See Where Do I Draw the Line? for more on boundaries).

Insufficient training

Not feeling equipped to do your job is incredibly stressful. It can feel like personal failure and many people receive negative feedback and punitive measures for failing to do a job that they have not ben adequately trained for. This is a similar issue to not having the resources to do your job. Expectations, particularly in public services, to be able to deal with any situation that arises, can move into the realm of unethical. Be sure you know your own limits and where to get the information you need. If you are not receiving helpful feedback from supervisors or managers, consider creating a a request for feedback form or system, or having a conversation about what you are looking for. Even asking the question, “How will I know if I’m on the right track or on the wrong track?”  “Where do I go to get information about….” can be a place to start. Offer to recruit a few people to help in putting together an orientation manual for future new employees can be a proactive way to address this issue.

 

Workplace Culture

Workplaces are like living with a bunch of people you didn’t necessarily chose, day and in day out. Collectively these people make up, influence or conform to the culture created by those who have come before, by those who are in power, and/or by strong personalities. These, in turn are influenced by the reality of the situation, how well are people being paid, what  the expectations for employees, and whether there are enough resources.

Emotional climate

Is it safe to say when you are unhappy with something? Are you allowed to show weakness or not to know something? What kind of response will you get when asking for time off for a family emergency, for holidays, or for self care?

Negative responses to these questions are indicators of the level of toxicity in a workplace. Shifting culture is not a solo job. You will need allies. You will need to determine what it is you need from your job. How tied are you to it? What level of risk is worth it for you? Is this something that can be shifted from he inside out or does it require outside motivators, such as brining in specialists or trainers? If you are unable to effect change through these methods, depending on the issues, involving outside allies and sometimes even public exposure can be effective ways to bring change.

Bullying

Bullying in the workplace, a topic of many professional development workshops and memos, rarely happens in a vacuum. The culture of  a workplace can serve to support or challenge bullying behaviours. See Workplace Bullying for more specifics on what constitutes bullying. Addressing bullying has to do, in part, with addressing culture. It also involves checking out what policies are currently in place and what processes are in place to address bullying.

 

Ethical Dilemmas

When your values conflict with the kind of job you do, or the way you do your job, your mental health is likely to suffer. Internal conflict is a high source of stress. As people, we generally work towards being congruent internally and externally.

Living out one’s values can be tricky. Helping professions may seem like a great way to live out altruistic values, but anyone who works in those fields knows that it is incredibly complex. Questions about whether people, organizations or services are doing more harm than good, sometimes surface. In the business world, it can be difficult to survive or get ahead without crossing some internal boundaries, depending on your goals. If you are working for a large corporations, or government, you might not even be fully aware of all the practices that are happening which may or may not conflict with your values.

Every situation is different but often there is no quick or even clear solution to ethical dilemmas in the workplace, however, a starting place is to get to know your own ethics and values (See What’s Worth Digging For? Finding your Values) and to consider which ones are more important that others when there is a conflict. Also, think big picture, lifestyle, geography, relationships, when considering what type of work you want to engage in or continue participating in.

 

Unfulfilling Job

Many of us were told, staring in elementary school that we should think about what we love to do and then do it, and that we can do whatever we set our minds to. As we age we discover that it is not that simple. We need to eat, we need housing. Money doesn’t always come directly with the things we love. Then we fall in love and the other person has needs and dreams and goals too that may conflict with some of ours.

I think that it is a big mistake to teach kids that a job needs to fulfill all of their dreams, aspiration and needs. I

It is unhealthy to believe that our whole identity is determined by our job, that we cannot have happiness if we don’t love our job. It is definitely worth working towards improving workplace conditions, considering what changes you can risk taking to find work that fits with your interests, but the basic goal of employment is to meet your financial needs. There may be times when that is all it can do and that does not mean that we are failing at life.

Fulfillment can come from other place and may be there in the workplace at future times when you change jobs.

For many people, there are significant barriers to changing jobs. If the financial needs are not taking over completely, and holding you hostage in your workplace, you might look at ways to get fulfillment elsewhere, through volunteer work, through relationships, etc. You might decide to shift your schedule to work less and spend more time with hobbies.

For some the financial needs are so great that they take over everything. Making enough money just to survive can sometimes take up all of our time. It is still worth considering what your big picture goals are. Perhaps it is to make a change for future workers so that they can thrive, instead of just surviving. Perhaps it is to save enough of yourself to invest in your relationships, as best you can. Sometimes you might have the luxury of taking a risk, trying out a new field, going back to school, starting a business. But these things seldom happen in a vacuum. You will likely need others – look to friends, family and co-workers for support, and as allies. It takes a village to help a person to be all that they want to be.

 

For more on workplace burnout see 7 Burnout Busters for the Mental Health Worker (and for other people who work with humans too!)

 

 

 

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