Do people seem touchier than usual in your office? It’s been a long winter, meaning we’ve spent a lot of time inside together and levels of stress could be rising.
Everyone is talking more about mental health these days, especially employers. It’s an issue of concern for our country, as it affects our productivity and ability as Canadians to compete. Mental illness, as a cause of days off work, is the single largest contributor of short- and long-term disability in companies.
While we need to better recognize mental health issues and provide those in distress with better access to treatment, we must not forget that like many physical issues, some mental health conditions may be preventable in the first place. Accordingly, we must add mental resilience to our discussion. I define mental resilience as your ability to recover quickly from emotional difficulties. Preparing yourself mentally takes discipline and training. You need to think of your brain as yet another muscle in your body. It takes more than psychological fortitude or “will power” to being able to roll with the punches. You have to consider the way you’re treating your whole body to be mentally prepared for what may come your way, not to mention being able to always bring your “A” game at work and home.
How can you perform at your peak if you ignore the basic building blocks of health? You’ll simply run out of gas if you don’t fuel up your body properly. And just like a car that goes without routine maintenance, you’re setting yourself up for a breakdown should you run into a few bad days at work or a personal crisis. It’s so much harder to deal with the inevitable ups and downs that can occur if you aren’t taking care of yourself. But if you’ve developed mental resilience, you’ll find it much easier to let it go.
You have to (repeat after me) be active, eat right and sleep well to be mentally resilient. If you don’t eat or sleep, you’ll experience brain fog, have trouble making logical, effective decisions and undermine your personal confidence. You’ve got to get oxygen and blood pumping to your brain as well and be able to flush brain garbage out. Never moving from your desk is as bad as smoking for your health. Get up regularly and walk away from your desk for a minute or two, even if it’s just to the water cooler and back (and drink some of that water on your way back as research shows cognitive performance and concentration levels drop significantly with dehydration). Close your eyes and count to ten when you open an email that sounds a bit prickly. Breathe and now read it again. It’s just an email. If you’re tired and undernourished, a poorly written email can seem like a much bigger deal than it actually is.
Once you’ve mastered all this, it’s time to do more advanced training for your brain. Learn how to meditate. So many studies point to the importance of dialing our brain down to a different level of consciousness to give it the capacity to adapt to unexpected stress. I liken it to cleaning up the extra bedroom to allow for an influx of unexpected house guests. Last but not least, find purpose in your work. Fulfillment puts day-to-day irritations into perspective.
There are changes you can make now to your lifestyle to help you sail through even the craziest days. After all, it’s not only your work performance at stake. If you skip meals, don’t exercise and sleep too little, you put yourself at risk for developing mental health problems, and chronic physical illness as well.
Elaine Chin, MD, MBA is the founder of the Executive Health Centre.