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Be Your Own Best Advocate: 6 Ways Millennials Can Take Better Care Of Their Mental Health In The Workplace

Mel Burke

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Millennials are frequently portrayed as overly-sensitive, entitled, and touchy.

But what comes off as gentle, is, in fact, an iron-clad deep-set desire to touch on “taboo” subjects. We’re better at talking about our mental health, for example, than our parents ever were. And anyone who’s had to start that conversation knows how much grit and determination, “Hey, can we talk for a minute,” takes.

As millennials, we have that grit—because we don’t have a choice.  

In a 2018 survey conducted for Quartz, 30% of respondents aged 18-34 reported experiencing anxiety in a way that interrupts work “frequently” or “often,” a rate that was twice the national average for the same survey.

And yet, even though millennials are 30% of the workforce, and 30% of us are experiencing mental health issues at work, we still don’t want anyone to know that it’s happening to us personally.

A 2015 American University survey found that more than 70% of respondents were comfortable seeing a counselor, but wouldn’t want anyone to know about it. It’s a classic case of stigma-induced, “Oh, that’s fine for other people but not me.”

Despite the statistics that tell us we have incredible chances of being understood in the workplace, we still have a hard time doing it. Asking for help, being vulnerable, and being honest are all terrifying things to start with—nevermind doing them at work.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. If you’re looking for ways to start better protecting your mental health in the office, then there are a few steps you can take.

1) Let Go Of Perfectionism

A brand new study from the American Psychological Association found that perfectionism has increased exponentially since 1989. Since the study capped in 2016, this means Millennials, and our younger counterparts Generation Z, are at the top-most peak of the spectrum. According to the study, “recent generations of young people perceive that others are more demanding of them, are more demanding of others, and are more demanding of themselves.”

We’re basically overworking ourselves because of how we think we need to be performing—not what’s actually being asked of us.

Which isn’t to say we should start turning in bad work. It just means next time you’re having another bathroom sobbing fit because your presentation isn’t perfect yet, maybe take a moment to breathe. Remember that even Mary Poppins was only ever “practically” perfect in every way—not literally.     

2) Ask For Help

Asking for help at work allows us to feel more connected to our colleagues, alleviating feelings of isolation or loneliness.

Maybe what you need is to reach out to a manager or supervisor and let them know how a particularly hefty workload is affecting you personally. If that feels too vulnerable, you can always frame it around your productivity—no one works well if they’re burnt out and exhausted from doing too much in too short a time. Your manager will understand.

It’s better to redistribute responsibilities on a project and have things done to the best of everyone’s ability than to demand that one person finish everything alone.

3) Talk About It

Here’s the deal: your boss can only support you if you let them know you need it. No one, not even the best boss on the planet, is a mind reader.

And if you’re worried about being discriminated against because of your mental health condition, then know that there are policies in place that protect you. The Americans With Disabilities Act covers things like anxiety and depression as disabilities that can inhibit your work if you’re not given proper support.

But because invisible illnesses don’t come with a visual marker, you have to speak up.

You can always start with an email or a note to your manager or supervisor and then decide your comfort level from there.  And if you don’t want to leap straight to your superiors, then test the water with your peers. Remember—millennials love a good mental health conversation. We’re here for each other and we’ll listen.  

4) Take Regular Breaks

Millennials are overworked to start with, so staying at your desk through lunch or long after everyone else has left the office isn’t doing your health any favors.

Instead, build in regular breaks throughout your work day to get away from your desk. If the weather’s nice, go for a walk outside for a few minutes. 20 minutes of outdoor environments during the workday have been proven to stimulate your neurons and turn off your stress response.

If you can’t get outside, find a quiet place to meditate or read for a few minutes. Try the break room, a conference room or an empty hallway. Even a 5-minute bathroom meditation can do wonders for the rest of your day.

5) Set Healthy Work-Life Boundaries

All the breaks in the world won’t offset working past an appropriate quitting time.  Flexible work hours are very popular with our generation—so much so in fact it’s deeply impacting the way millennials choose to work in the first place.

But just because you’re starting at 10 am doesn’t mean you need to work until 9.

And that goes for email and Slack too. Being constantly plugged in to our work environment via smartphones and tablets means we’re more likely to work in our off hours. Yes—answering a work email from bed while you’re watching Netflix with your partner counts as working.

And it chips away at your mental health. According to Kurt Smith, Psy.D, “Time spent away from work should be time to unwind and recharge. But if you’re constantly checking work emails on your cell phone, you never let your brain turn off and you risk getting burned out.”

So, use your phone’s settings to customize a do not disturb mode after work hours. By setting the expectation that you’re unreachable during that time, people will cease to try reaching you.  

6) Check Your Context

You probably know the popular adage—before you diagnose yourself with depression, make sure you aren’t surrounded by assholes.

Now, there are some nuances in that statement we could unpack, but the core sentiment essentially applies. If you’re experiencing spiked anxiety or depression, try to feel out where the sudden swell came from. Do you feel comfortable and safe in your home life? In your relationships? At work?

If you’re feeling mostly triggered at work, then it may be time to take a step back and ask yourself why. A 2017 study found that people who experience harassment or discrimination in the workplace are at a greater risk for depression and anxiety. Namely one group more than the other—“often women and those lower in the hierarchy are at increased risk,” writes Pallab K. Maulik, the author of the study.

And it’s not always going to be blatant. The pay gap between women and men, for example, was recently linked to increased cases of depression in women. No one may be telling you to your face that you’re lesser because of your gender, but you’ll certainly feel it in your paycheck. And that has a long-term effect on your mental heatlh.

What it all comes down to is whether you’re negotiating a major sales contract, or telling your boss you need a mental health day, no one is going to advocate for you like you advocate for yourself. You are worth the same amount of time and energy you put into your work every day—so there’s no harm in returning that time to your own self-care.  

When Mel Burke isn't singing 80's love songs to her dog, she writes about books, food, dating, travel, and the constantly weird adventure that is living in California. Find her everywhere online @melburkewrites.

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