We’ve all been there. It’s 8 p.m. You receive a Slack message from your manager reminding you that your deadline is at midnight, or that a key client is unhappy, or that you’ll have to come into the office this weekend to finish a report–despite whatever plans you might have already made.
When these things happen, those of us on the other side of the computer screen suffer. We suffer because we become overwhelmed, anxious, and, above all, stressed. And stress ultimately damages our mental health and our overall quality of life.
Now, while a majority of Americans report feeling stress at work, there are some companies who proactively try and help their employees protect their mental health.
For example, early in my career, I worked at Federal Express, a place where leadership offered employees “mental health days” to ensure we were all taking care of ourselves. They did this because they understood the nature of our work to be inherently stressful–whether it was meeting a deadline or dealing with irate customers, everyone at the company was from time to time overworked. Because of that, they wanted to help us combat negative feelings.
This was of course great, but the truth is, not all companies are so empathetic or caring. And understanding as we do that stress is physiologically damaging, it’s incumbent upon us to take steps to protect and nurture our own mental health.
We shouldn’t feel ashamed of investing in as much, either. Rather, it’s smart to actively invest in your mental health. It’s a matter of being fully present in both your professional and your personal life, and of taking action to be the best version of yourself possible.
Here are a few strategies I’ve learned to be helpful to this end over the course of my career.
1. Always take your breaks and lunches
Americans, especially, glamorize overworking. We think that to work relentlessly–and to forgo your breaks during the day–is evidence of your passion, commitment, and investment. As such, many of us do things like eat lunch at our desks or stay in our windowless office for nine hours straight.
This is, in a word, shortsighted.
Simply put, people are more effective when they take regular breaks–and that includes eating lunch away from your laptop. At World Changers, I encourage my employees to take 15-minute breaks in the morning and afternoon, in addition to going on walks and clearing their head as needed. This, I believe, allows our minds to reset and declutter so that when we come back to our work, our responsibilities feel more manageable.
2. Exercise regularly
Our physical health directly impacts our mental health.
If we neglect our bodies–if we don’t go outside during the day, or exercise often, or go for walks–we put ourselves in a deeper hole.
It’s not always easy, but you need to prioritize doing things like going to the gym or otherwise being active for some parts of the day. Whether your company assists you with this or not, think of it as another means of investing in your mental acuity.
3. Actually take mental health days if you need them
The mental health days I took from time to time at Federal Express were essential. They gave me set blocks of time in which I could reset. They helped me maintain, too, a sort of balanced perspective in which I saw my work as merely a facet of my life–not my entire life.
Like taking 30 minutes to exercise or eating lunch away from your laptop, allowing yourself to take mental health days amounts to investing in your improved ability to focus and be productive while you’re at work. Humans are not machines. Just as we can’t operate at 100% capacity without breaks all day, we can’t operate at optimal efficiency all year without ever taking a meaningful amount of time–be it a day or a week–away from the office.
4. Unplug from work when you get home
Similarly, to truly protect your mental health, you must set aside time–in addition to lunches and daily breaks–that’s solely for you and your family. If you find yourself always checking your email at home, or always monitoring Slack, you’re never giving yourself essential time to appreciate your loved ones or the things that make you happy–which is something all humans need.
As someone who’s run several organizations, this is a point I’ve learned a lot about over the years. It’s tempting to forfeit your entire life to the people you’re in charge of and the initiatives you want badly to succeed. But giving yourself so holistically to your work breeds resentment and, in time, erodes happiness. I’ve benefited immensely from ensuring that my time at home, when I’m not at the office, is spent solely with my family, members of my church, or reading a great book.
We can only be effective as professionals if we remain cognizant of who we are–and what we love doing–as people. Being a person comes first.
5. Delegate your responsibilities at work
Finally, remember not to push yourself past your breaking point.
This was another big lesson for me. Early in my career, I thought that to give up the chance to take on more was akin to forfeiting my chance at a future promotion or raise. But the truth is, if you accept more responsibility than you can reasonably handle, you’ll end up doing more damage than good.
So when you reach your breaking point, don’t try and barrel past it. Define what your boundaries are, speak up when you’ve reached them, and delegate some of your responsibilities to your people.
If this sounds hard, you’re not alone. I know many ambitious, inspired people suffer from the same false belief I sometimes suffer from, which is this idea that we have to do everything ourselves. It’s a belief compounded by the anxiety that if we’re not pushing ourselves past our limits of capacity, we’re not doing enough to get ahead or succeed.
But your ambition cannot supersede the importance of maintaining your mental health. Because it’s true: at a certain point, overworking really does become unproductive.
At the end of the day, in order to be most effective, you have to be happy, healthy, and mentally balanced.
In some ways, then, protecting your mental health is your first and most important responsibility as an enterprising professional. It’s an ongoing project you can’t afford to neglect–even when you get that late-night Slack message.