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A 5-step mental health plan to a better you at work

An illustration of a woman keeping things balanced while surrounded by work-related objects.

Tips & tricks by Sarah Chamberlain

Finding yourself feeling trapped clock-watching? Unfulfilled with routine tasks, stuck with zero progression? Constantly searching for satisfaction with a social scroll or snack? These unsettling experiences are a recipe for low engagement at work, and it might be time to take some steps to improve working life for your mental health.

Post-pandemic, it seemed everyone was jumping ship to improve happiness at work, sending the world spiralling into the Great Resignation. But now, with the aftermath of the pandemic leaving behind an uncertain economic climate, financial insecurity, stripped resources and tighter budgets, the Great Stagnation is upon us – people are staying in jobs, in many cases, for financial security.

And it’s taking a big toll on people’s mental health.

Research by Gallup, a workplace analytics brand that leads one of the largest annual studies into employee engagement across the world, found that work engagement in the UK is shockingly low, at 13%, making our island one of the least professionally engaged in the world.

Over time, a lack of engagement can have psychological consequences. In a study of 25–39-year-olds, those with a lack of fulfilment and satisfaction in their job were more susceptible to mental health issues in later life, including higher levels of depression, sleep problems, and excessive worry.

For the next brew round, slurp up these tips for a stronger cup of positivi-tea to sweeten up work-life.

The chemical reaction

Co-founder of NeuroLeadership Institute, David Rock, along with neuroscience professor Dr Yi-Yuan Tang, looked at how the mind buzzes from work. They found that it’s down to the activation of the brain’s reward circuitry.

Happiness at work and optimising how you work releases dopamine. Positive feedback triggers serotonin. And when you’re flying off feeling valued, oxytocin joins the party.

Dr Melissa Hughes, a keynote speaker who applies neuroscience to improve employee engagement, says these chemicals work together to stimulate the prefrontal cortex or ‘thinking brain’, which is key for planning, problem solving, decision making, creativity and impulses.

When you’re not feeling your job or lacking purpose, the brain shuts down the production of these important, feel-good chemicals and changes behaviour… cue: the impulse to fill the void with an irresistible chocolatey snack.

Psychotherapist and author of Your Mental Health Workout, Zoe Aston, suggests bottling up workplace dissatisfaction can lead to anxiety, panic, depression and eating disorders.

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Control, alt, shift engagement at work

Step 1: Create the dream role

Think about what tasks turn you on or off. Now split those into a table, recognising a pattern of what parts of the job you enjoy and want to develop, and ideate solutions to do less of the painful projects. This initiative, ambition and intuition shows bosses just how much of an asset you are, whilst presenting an opportunity for professional growth and helping you truly understand how you feel and what you want from your role.

Step 2: Rewire the brain

As enjoyment drops, dissatisfaction in the workplace can descend into self-destructive and insecure thoughts.

If you’re trapped in a negative spiral, it’s because our minds are wired to dwell on negativity. To rewire, come back to that table you created with all the parts of your job that light you up, and copy the positives on to post-it notes, or set it as your wallpaper or create daily meeting reminders. Update and look at it as often as you can to break the negative cycle.

Step 3: Find your Goldilocks zone

The sweet spot for learning and upskilling is where the tasks aren’t too easy for you to get bored or too hard to make you frustrated — it’s just right.

The brain experiences optimum motivation when solving tasks on edge of your current capabilities. Ask your manager if there are projects or training you can get your teeth stuck into, even outside your role. Without that, you might find yourself checking out from the team or company.

Step 4: On a roll to achieve your goals

Hitting goals releases dopamine because the mind loves winning.

Set daily, weekly, and monthly goals – whether its mental or physical achievements – to stay motivated and focused on a path to progress, regardless of your work-related circumstance.

Get your steps in to self-help podcasts, pavement-pounding tunes, or vibe with a colleague to make a positive difference to your attitude and feel a sense of belonging. (Podcast pointer: how to become unstuck with psychology master, Adam Alter.)

Found yourself still procrastinating even when something exciting comes along? It's a by-product of demotivation and lack of confidence. So setting goals can help deal with change or stuckness that’s out of your control and avoidment feelings.

Step 5: Go EXTRA-curricular

Scope opportunities to learn new skills or find purpose outside of work to kick-start that chemical-reaction celebration we talked about earlier. Earn some serious satisfaction points by finding courses or guides to read in your field or interests, there’s lots of freebies these days.

For example, LinkedIn offers a fountain of knowledge, learn a language, or start a voluntary passion project that makes use of your expertise – plus, you can have a real impact in helping improve the community.


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