Last week, I heard from a client I hadn’t spoken to in a long while. She came to me in 2018 for help with a career change, and since then she’s been killing it in tech sales. We had a great catch-up, and I couldn’t help but resonate with her as she described how the past year has been such a whirlwind, she feels as though she is just now coming up for air. 2021, she told me, will be the year she will prioritize her mental health and achieve the work-life balance she’s been hoping for.
Let’s face it, this past year has been a really tough one. The Covid-19 pandemic upended all of our lives in so many ways. And while the news of vaccine deployment brings hopes of progress, we’re still very much in the middle of it.
It’s no wonder that many of us have felt the weight of the past 12 months on our mental health. Studies show that 53% of Americans felt that their mental health was negatively affected as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Social isolation has undoubtedly been a major driving factor. Among those who were forced to shelter in place, 47% reported increased stress and anxiety due to Covid-19, 10% higher than those who did not have to shelter in place. Besides our personal lives, our work lives are undoubtedly the space in which we’ve seen the biggest changes. Apart from the obvious increase of working from home, one common sentiment I’ve heard from so many of my clients is that now that they are working remotely, they are struggling to balance their work lives with their personal lives.
The data backs up these feelings. According to a new study by Asana, more than 89% of American workers said they faced burnout in 2020, and nine out of ten workers also admitted to working later throughout 2020. Remote work due to Covid-19 has meant longer workdays, with the average worker putting in 48 minutes longer per day. This might not seem too bad, but when you consider that the average American worker works roughly 47 weeks per year, you’re looking at about 188 extra hours per year. That’s more than four and a half extra work weeks. Not cool.
And I’m sure a lot of us are feeling like my client. There were so many changes to adjust to over the past year that a lot of us just dove in and haven’t come up for a breath of air. Whether you’re feeling the strain in your overall mental health, or you are struggling to create boundaries between work and life, it’s time to make room for the changes and practices that can help you find balance.
Maybe this something you want to prioritize, but you aren’t sure where to begin. Let me offer 5 helpful tips on how to make your mental health a priority.
1) Set boundaries at work
We all know how difficult it can be to set boundaries at work. This can be especially hard if you are early in your career, or even just new to your current job or company. We all want to do a good job, and prove to our peers and supervisors that we are capable and that we excel at our work.
But the thing is, sometimes we confuse the desire to show that we are motivated and hardworking with the need to say “yes” all the time.
This may look different for everyone. Maybe you’re saying “yes” to too many projects and spreading your energy and time too thin. Maybe you’ve made yourself too available by setting the expectation that you will reply quickly to a work email, no matter what time of day or night it is sent.
If you’re struggling to set the right boundaries, it’s time that you start saying “no.” Now the delicate thing here is learning how to say “no” without too abrasively saying “no!” Follow me?
If not, here are a few examples:
- Your supervisor asks you to take on a project that you may not have the time for. Consider responding with, “I would be very excited to work on this, and given my current workload on deck, I’d love your help prioritizing. Can we take a look at my deliverables together and rework my priorities?”
- You received a work email at 9:30pm. Unless it is truly immediately pressing, wait until the start of business hours the following morning, and respond promptly, but don’t apologize for the delay.
- You have a coworker always wanting to chat despite you having a full plate of work. Give them a minute, and if they keep going on and you don’t have time for it, let them know that though you’d love to hear more about this, given your workload you can’t be as present as you’d like to be for it at the moment. Ask if they’re available later for a Zoom happy hour, or for you to ping them when you’re more freed up… and get back to work.
2) If you’re working from home, build your schedule as if you were going to the office
Especially when working from home, it can be tough to take breaks or to unplug. Anyone else found themselves trying to fit lunch in between 1:58 p.m. and the 2 p.m. Zoom meeting?
I think that one of the hardest things about working from home is that it removes all the normal structure that used to make up our days. Whether you were commuting by train, driving, walking to work, stepping out for lunch or having drinks after work with coworkers, the time we used to spend away from our workspaces was incredibly valuable for our productivity.
Studies have shown that taking breaks can greatly improve your productivity, especially while focusing on a single task for long periods of time.
I have a friend who, every morning since March, has taken a walk before work. Or sometimes he’ll just get in his car and go for a drive, or get a cup of coffee. According to him, he feels significantly more ready for the workday, and it has really helped him feel more balance now that his day to day lacks the structure of going to the office.
Who knew that walking is actually one of the best things you can do to get alert for work? A Stanford study found that when participants were performing mental tasks, walking gave a major boost to creative thinking.
Walking without a destination might be even better for your productivity. Another research group found that when you walk at your natural pace, and you’re not rushing to make it in time for the morning meeting, your brain may free up more resources for cognitive processing and thinking.
Beyond taking a walk to get yourself activated and mentally prepared for work, there are many ways you can create a schedule that creates more definitive boundaries between work and life.
Take a real lunch break, go out and pick up lunch and take some real time for yourself. Sign up for a 6 p.m. yoga class, or make plans for a virtual drink. I know we all have Zoom fatigue, but I know you have a friend who you owe a good old-fashioned phone call. Maybe take a bubble bath, or unwind with a glass of wine after the workday. Anything that creates a break in your day between when you wrap up work and when you start your time off in the evening.
If you have something to look forward to, you’re bound to be more productive during your workday. In addition, having concrete plans will help you set better boundaries about when you finish work and about your availability after work hours.
3) Do a cell phone detox
This is definitely one of the hardest things, but also one the most impactful things you can do to improve your mental health and work-life balance.
Let’s face it, most of us are kind of addicted to our devices. I mean, 35% of Americans check their phones more than 50 times a day. A study found that 47% of smartphone users state that they couldn’t live a day without their phone... I would have expected that number to be even higher!
Throughout the last 12 months, our usual FOMO scrolling while looking at our friends on exotic vacations, has been replaced with “doom scrolling” on Twitter, reading scary Covid-19 statistics, or watching increasingly frightening news stories develop. We all could use a break.
It’s understandable that throughout the pandemic, we’ve become a little bit more attached to our devices. With so much unknown in the world, and having been abruptly cut off from a lot of the normal practices of our social lives, our phones are our lifelines, to friends and family, and to news that is so important. But even if we’re engaging with content that is informative or connections that ought to make us happy, overuse of smartphones may not be the best thing for mental health.
Studies are just beginning to explain the effects of smartphone use on mental health, and much of the research has been focused on younger people and phone use. A study of 300 graduate university students linked smartphone addiction to anxiety and depression. The study describes how phones can become a tool of “avoidance coping”—aka a distraction to divert ourselves from unpleasant or stressful thoughts or feelings. Over time, this can create a pattern that may lead to further negative mental health consequences.
Whether or not you feel that you may have a less that positive relationship with the tiny computer in your pocket, it’s valuable for anyone to take a break from the phone.
An awesome way to start is to limit smartphone usage before bed, and first thing in the morning. The blue light from your phone screen can suppress your brain’s production of melatonin, a natural sleep hormone, and hence, disrupt your circadian rhythm.
If you often see the light of your phone before you see the sun in the morning, you might want to reconsider your morning routine. Morning sunlight can boost your alertness and mood, and improve your sleep, which creates a “cascade” positive effect in your mental health.
Beyond the positive effects that setting limits on phone use can have on your mental health, taking time away from your phone will help you set better boundaries around work communications outside of working hours.
4) Prioritize sleep
At the risk of saying something you already know, sleep is so, so important for your overall health and your mental health.
In fact, sleep and mental health are intrinsically linked. Not getting enough sleep—the Centers for Disease Control recommends no less than seven hours of sleep per night for adults—can negatively affect your mood. A study found that sleep deprivation can lead to many adverse mood effects including, anger, irritability, general sadness and mental fatigue.
Insomnia and trouble sleeping can be a part of many common mental health conditions including anxiety and depression. In turn, not getting adequate sleep can exacerbate these challenges. A study of young people ages 20–21 found that those who experienced insomnia were also significantly more likely to face depression in the future.
Studies like this illustrate the importance of prioritizing sleep. It’s important to create healthy habits to ensure that you are getting the best sleep possible. I would say it’s a safe bet that you brush your teeth before bed, but have you thought about sleep hygiene?
Here are some tips from the CDC on how to set yourself up for good sleep:
- Avoid screens before bed, as we discussed before, because the blue light is disruptive to your natural circadian rhythms and melatonin release.
- Consistency is key. Make an effort to go to sleep and wake at the same time every day. This will also help regulate your circadian rhythm.
- Darkness, consistent temperature and any efforts to turn your bedroom into a relaxing environment will aid in sleep.
- Daily exercise is excellent for getting good rest at night.
- Avoid eating or consuming sugar or caffeine before bed, which can create artificial alertness and interfere with sleep. Caffeine can stay in your body for up to 12 hours, but generally it’s recommended to cut off caffeinated drinks four to six hours before you go to sleep
Here’s what I’ve found to make sure I’m getting good sleep. It helps to keep work outside the bedroom; if possible try not to do work in your bedroom. You want your bedroom to be a sanctuary for sleep. I try to start to unwind about an hour before I want to be asleep. That means no phone time, as hard as it may be. I might listen to some quiet music, stretch, try to get out of my head and back into my body, read a book. Try different things to see what helps slow you down, and drift off.
5) Schedule time for personal and professional development
I think that in order to boost our mental health and self-esteem, and to make sure that we are investing in a healthy work-life balance, we have to invest in ourselves. By making time to devote to personal and professional development outside of work, you ensure that you are giving back to yourself regularly.
This time should just be about you. Even if you are trying to develop your professional skills, do so with the intention that it is to build yourself up, not to make yourself better at your job.
A great way to make sure you are prioritizing your professional development is to set a weekly goal for yourself. Start with 15 minutes a day, or maybe make sure that you are getting three to five hours per week in engaging with personal development materials. How you structure it is up to you, as long as you’re making sure to meet your goals.
TED Talks are a fun and interesting way to engage with new ideas that will grow your mindset and help you develop new skills. If you’re looking for one to get you started on an enriching TED rabbit hole, check out my recent TEDx talk entitled “How to figure out what you really want,” in which I discuss my formula to help you connect with your authentic purpose in work and life. This talk includes a great journal prompt that will give you another actionable approach to help you focus on your own development.
If 2020 was the year to adapt and survive, 2021 will be the year to slow down and focus on our mental health. I feel that doing so we will all be better people, better thinkers, better partners and friends, and just plain better.