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Mental Health Awareness Week: don’t struggle alone

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 18 May 2023

If you feel overwhelmed by anxiety at work – or anywhere else – there are practical strategies to help and experts to turn to.

Work can be stressful at the best of times but add to that the everyday pressures of life, against a backdrop of rising costs, uncertainty and turmoil and it’s easy for anxiety to become unmanageable. It can make you feel ill – both physically and mentally – and lead to a situation where you simply don’t know where to turn. 

If this strikes a chord, you are not alone. One in seven people experience mental health problems in the workplace, according to a government-commissioned report, and around 8% of all sickness absence days in the UK can be attributed to mental health conditions.

Nick Elston, a leading public speaker on the experience of mental health, says fostering good mental health isn’t something you should leave to chance. Like physical health, it is something we can exercise, nurture and care for every day, even if it’s in between periods of medication or help, or therapy. 

“It’s about doing everything that we can do to give ourselves the best chance of thriving – but also knowing that we do not live in a Disney movie and there are times when we will get knocked off our feet and not everything’s going to be rosy. But how do we bounce back when we need it the most?” Elston asks.

If you feel your mental health declining, you may find the following tips useful. 

Know your mental health baseline

Experts say that self-awareness and understanding your mental health baseline is key because no two people experience anxiety or a feeling of being overwhelmed in the same way. People need to know what good looks like for them in the same way you know when you’re in optimum physical health,” says Zoe Thompson, a self-development coach and trainer at Phoenix Life and Wellbeing Coaching. 

“Knowing what happens when your mental health isn’t good allows you to communicate that to people around you and tell them what support you need. Having those conversations when your mental health is good means that mechanisms are in place so that when we have that conversation, somebody’s already got the answers,” Thompson adds.

Petra Velzeboer is the CEO of mental health consultancy PVL and author of a new book Begin With You: “It’s important to listen to your body to understand whether you are experiencing stress and need a break or anxiety and need more specific help,” she says. 

Tell people how you’re feeling

People often wait until they can’t function before they ask for help, but it’s often much more useful to make it a habit to be open with at least two people in your life and build a network of support.

For the employee who is feeling anxious, it’s important they keep their workplace informed, says Paula Allen, Senior Vice-President of Research and Total Wellbeing at TELUS Health: “Communicating with a manager may feel daunting, so if there’s a colleague who can help or even someone from HR to lean on, they can then have the necessary conversation with managers.”

Find what works for you

The range of mental health resources out there designed to help you manage your mental health can also feel overwhelming, says Velzeboer: “We live in an information age where you can find breathing techniques, affirmations, physical exercises and all sorts at the tap of a finger. This is why it’s important to learn to think for yourself and experiment with small things that can help you over time.”

Liz Walker, COO, Unum UK, advises: “You might find breathwork – where you concentrate on your in and out breaths – helpful, or even try a body scan (in which you concentrate on the sensations in individual parts of your body). Ultimately, one size does not fit all, so be prepared to experiment with different techniques until you find the one that suits you best.”

Focus on the moment

Practising mindfulness – when you are aware of the moment – can direct your attention away from worry and negative thoughts, and help you focus on the present in a calmer way, says Walker: “As a first step, charities like the Mental Health Foundation and Mind all have excellent information on how to get started with mindfulness and what to expect.” There are also some great mindfulness apps, many of which are free, she suggests. 

Give yourself a break

Make sure you make full use of your entitlement to holidays and time off work. That includes trying to ensure that you always take a lunch break to relieve the burden of work-related anxieties. “Fulfilling a healthy work life-balance as time to disconnect can help to alleviate feelings of stress, anxiety, and burnout,” Allen says. 

Grounding exercises

Grounding exercises are great for calming the body’s fight-or-flight anxiety response and can be used throughout the day as needed. “A good one to start with is square breathing, which simply means breathing in for four seconds and breathing out for four seconds,” says Somia Zaman, a psychotherapist in private practice and cognitive behavioural therapy specialist. “This calms the nervous system and makes us feel more relaxed.”

Progressive muscle relaxation can also help to calm the nervous system, Zaman suggests: “This involves tensing and then actively relaxing muscles around the body, bringing your awareness to where you are holding stress in your body.”

Suicide: knowing when to turn to professional help

Statistics around suicide – and male suicide in particular – make for devastating reading. According to the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM), 125 lives are lost every week to suicide. And 75% of all UK suicides are male.

But Thompson says it’s important to understand that mental illness is a very different challenge from mental health, requiring a very different solution and treatment. While looking after your mental health can reduce the likelihood of mental illness, the two are very different conversations, she says.

“Mental health in the UK is declining but that’s not the same as mental illness. The way I describe it is, looking after your mental health is like replacing the toner cartridge, making sure you buy the right thickness of paper and doing everything that you can to make sure the printer runs smoothly. 

“Mental illness is when there’s a wiring issue inside the machine. It doesn’t matter if you change the toner and if you’ve got fresh paper in there. You need an expert to come in who’s able to fix that.”

If you are feeling suicidal, help is available. Don’t feel as if you have to suffer alone with suicidal thoughts. The following telephone helplines are open every day:

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