How To Reclaim Control When Work Is Eroding Your Mental Health

Your to-do list seems endless: Red notification dots occupy your mind, and you're drowning in hundreds of top-priority emails. Your mind slips away when you need it to focus. You still want desperately to prove yourself, yet your passion for work fades. This immense feeling of losing control and exhaustion is a sign of burnout, which can severely harm your mental health. World Health Organization (WHO) defines it as a result of "chronic workplace stress," which has three main characteristics: feelings of energy depletion, increased feelings of cynicism, and lower work efficiency. 

According to a survey of more than 11,000 employees conducted last year by Mental Health America, 4 in 5 people believe "the stress from work has led to mental health concerns." Every year in the world, approximately 12 billion working days are lost to depression and anxiety, WHO estimates. What's worse, women have reported higher levels of burnout than men. The reason behind this is complex and manifold: unequal demands for men and women at home and at work, gender inequalities at the workplace such as a lower income, and a smaller chance for female employees to be promoted to leadership positions. So, how to regain control and preserve mental health when you are suffering from burnout at work? Here are some helpful getaway tips.

Set boundaries at work

The first thing to know is that it is always okay to say no — both to work and to yourself. It's great to be a high achiever, but it's even better when you know what's within your reach and what's not, and you feel comfortable setting boundaries. "Biologically we are not meant to be in that high-stress mode all the time," Emma Seppala, a psychologist at Stanford University, told The New York Times. "We got lost in this idea that the only way to be productive is to be on the go-go-go mode." The flip side of this "go-go-go mode" is multiple occupational health hazards that are eroding your body's function: the psychological toll can lead to unhealthy habits like smoking, drinking, and overeating, while the stress itself can contribute to difficulty sleeping, heart disease, and stroke — not to mention poor mental health. 

It is also important to re-evaluate your priorities and use effective time management skills when dealing with excessive workloads and deadlines. Break down the big tasks into smaller, doable sections. Rank the difficulty for these parts, and start with the easiest ones. When you stick to even the smallest deadlines, and avoid taking on more work than you can reasonably complete during the workday, you'll be able to carve a clear line between work and life. Slowly, you will gain back control over your time, and find your work-life balance.

Take a break and practice self-care

Batteries need a recharge from time to time, and so do humans. Self-care can do wonders to help you reclaim control when your day job is taking a toll on your mental health. Leisure time is an investment in your overall health, and it's important to find opportunities to detach from work and relax — in your own place, or outside in nature. Sports and outdoor activities are proven to boost mental health by lowering levels of stress hormones and making your body release endorphins, chemicals that can reduce pain and stress. Head to the basketball court at the park, or book a getaway trip and hide yourself in the woods. Even just taking an hour a day to bathe in the sunlight and meditate on the progress you've made or the things you're grateful for will be like a spiritual massage that releases your burden and negative emotions. 

Developing a social network and support system outside of your work is also significantly helpful. Take a pottery or dance class, volunteer in your neighborhood, meet some new faces, reconnect with your friends, and chat about recent life. "What we found is that people's health, well-being, everything in life, is way better if you're connected with other people," Christina Maslach, a burnout researcher, told The New York Times. "That social network, that each of you have each other's back, that they're there for you and you're there for them, that's like money in the bank."

Ask for help when needed

Don't be afraid or ashamed of asking for help and talking about your problem, because self-disclosure and verbalizing the struggle can be a cathartic way of healing. Reach out to your trusted ones, family, friends, supportive colleagues, or mentors, and have a good, long conversation. You might be surprised at how relieved you will feel after talking the problems out, and how much you will benefit from their different perspectives. Therapy is another good way to talk about stress and improve emotional and psychological well-being.

It's also important to talk to your boss about your undergoing stress and let them know how they can help. Effective and professional communication with the employer can help identify the reason behind burnout, whether it is the overwhelming workload or an unreasonable schedule. By expressing your concerns, you are also helping the employer form a safer, more inclusive, and supportive work environment because caring for mental health at the workplace is related to fewer organizational issues like absenteeism, presenteeism, and job dissatisfaction. Psychologist Dr. Rosenna Bakari told Healthline, "You're not asking someone for a favor. You're asking someone for safe space and accommodations."

Switch up the work environment

If things are desperate enough, the best option might be to find a better work environment. True, not everyone can just quit their job — but if the above isn't going to help you, and if your work keeps eroding your sanity, maybe it is time to reconsider and reevaluate your career and be the agent of change: this could be asking for a promotion, transferring to a less stressful department, changing your career, going back to school, taking a gap year, or getting a certification ... There's never a dead end in life and there are always numerous possibilities waiting ahead. 

If you decided to do so, be ready to embrace the new chapter in your life, and the challenges that ensue. It is common to feel frustrated and stressed, so patience and the understanding that the difficulties won't last long will be important in this process. To safeguard your mental health, practice self-care, and mindfulness, have realistic expectations, be extra easy on yourself, and keep up a healthy routine to anchor a sense of stability in the uncertain time. If you allow it, change can be an opportunity for growth and resetting your goals.