Signs Your Workplace May Be Impacting Your Mental Health
Behavioral Health
March 23, 2022
Signs Your Workplace May Be Impacting Your Mental Health
Woman looking stressed at her laptop

In the early weeks and months of the coronavirus pandemic, many reported finally having the time to do a deep reflection, taking a look at their life and shifting priorities as they saw fit. It gave many the courage to shed behaviors, relationships and mindsets that didn’t serve them in a positive way anymore. One product of that collective perspective change has been the “Great Resignation,” an ongoing economic trend in which employees have voluntarily resigned from their jobs en masse to find jobs that better align with these new priorities.

But, sometimes, it’s not as easy to spot some workplace “red flags” that may not be serving you and your best interest anymore. That’s why we spoke with Ashley Gilmore, a licensed clinical social worker and director of behavioral health clinical services at Texas Health Dallas, to get her help to identify the top five signs your job may be impacting your mental health and how you can make a shift.

First Things First, Check-in with Yourself

If the last time you checked in with yourself was March 2020, Gilmore says you’re well overdue.

“We don’t need a global pandemic to do some internal reflection. Check-in and do it regularly, whether it is about a new position, leadership opportunity, or even a new company,” she explains. “A buffer to burnout is to be connected to your purpose and pursuing meaning in the work that you do. Ask yourself if you feel aligned in your values and what you do at work on a day-to-day basis. Most of us won’t feel like every single day is fulfilling our larger purpose, but every six months or so, we should be checking in to see if we feel connected and that we’re thriving.”

1. In the past year, you’ve developed or increased your level of depression and/or anxiety.

There are times when you may get a bit down or anxious at work, but if sadness, anxiety, loss of motivation, difficulty concentrating, and unexplained bouts of crying are as commonplace in your workday as filling up your coffee mug or sending an email, that’s not a good sign.

“A negative or toxic work environment will ultimately cause us to become disengaged and drained, even if it is work that we once loved to do,” Gilmore says. “We may dread going into work, avoid peers or clients, and give up on projects or using high-level skills. Many of us will take that chronic stress home at the end of the day and will feel less engaged with our loved ones because we simply do not have the emotional or physical energy.”

While it’s not uncommon to experience stress at work, you shouldn’t ignore persistent feelings of depression or anxiety.

2. You don’t have access to outdoors or spaces away from your workstation.

Do you often spend the workday glued to your desk? Or maybe your workstation is close to a window and you find yourself staring longingly at what a beautiful day it is, wishing you could step away to enjoy it even for just a bit.

If you never leave your workstation or get outside, it indicates that you are not taking breaks or are not disconnecting when you should be taking a break. Not only are you legally protected to take a break, but your body and mental health are positively impacted by taking time to decompress.

“Small breaks add up. Fresh air and light add up. Time outdoors is proven to improve attention and mood, reduce stress and risk of depression and anxiety, and even increase our empathy and cooperation,” Gilmore adds.

3. The culture discourages you from taking breaks.

While your office may not outright discourage you from taking breaks or time off, Gilmore notes there are many more subtle ways a work culture can discourage breaks.

If you notice that someone who has stepped away from their workstation for a break or lunch, or who is on vacation, is talked poorly about, you get the message not to leave your workstation or go on vacation unless you’d also like to be talked poorly about. If no one seems to use up their allotted time off, you may also feel pressure to do so as well, and this can lead to burnout — fast.

“This may be a part of the culture you can change by inviting peers to take a break with you for some coffee or a quick walk outside,” Gilmore says. “If you’re worried about your vacation time putting extra work on your peers, it may be something you can impact by giving plenty of notice to your management and peers when you plan to take time off so that your tasks can be covered.”

If not taking breaks and PTO is a solid part of the culture, this is an indicator that it will negatively affect your mental health over time.

4. The culture does not connect you to your peers.

In a world in which many are still working remotely, finding connection with your peers has been a bit of a challenge for employees and employers alike. But if your team or company makes no effort to help bridge the gap, that can leave you feeling isolated.

“Connection to other people is a protective factor in our mental health. That connection builds our empathy, collaboration, engagement, and sense of being a part of something bigger than ourselves,” Gilmore explains. “Isolation is lonely, reduces our tolerance and understanding, and increases depression and anxiety.”

Gilmore notes even if you are back working alongside your coworkers again, you can still feel isolated if connection or team building is discouraged or not allotted time for. Do you know your teammates beyond their function at work? Do you spend time with them not talking about work? Do you feel supported and that you can go to each other with questions and problems? If not, you may be lacking a serious sense of connection on the job. When you consider how many hours a day you spend working a week, this can have a negative impact on your mental health.

5. You have no outlets for curiosity, growth, or improving your craft.

This has long been a motivator to switch jobs even before the pandemic, but if you found yourself taking a job that didn’t challenge you or align with your interests or career goals just out of necessity, you may find yourself between a rock and hard place right now.

“If you’ve taken a job so that you have financial support in a tough time, I commend you,” Gilmore says. “The past few years have been upending without a lot of trust in what comes next. But while you’re in this ‘survival’ job, spend some time connecting to what interests you professionally and to building your peer network in the area you want to get back to someday.”

This can include keeping a list of the trainings you have taken, books you’ve read, and professional groups you’ve joined so that you can be aware of and communicate your development when it’s time.

Making a Shift Towards a Healthier Work Environment

“Let me be clear: there is no amount of medication, therapy, or self-care that will turn a bad job into a good one,” Gilmore cautions. “It’s a good idea to first try to impact the culture when you are in a job you want or need. If you try and don’t succeed, leave with a clear conscience, and look for something that will be a better fit.”

Choosing to stay in unhealthy or unfulfilling jobs because disliking your job has been normalized, either by popular culture or early mentors such as family members or bosses early in your career. Think of how many TV shows, movies, songs or commercials play up hating your job as a fact of life.

Or maybe you can check out once you clock out and lead a happy, fulfilled life outside of working hours, so it doesn’t matter if you don’t like your 9 to 5. Either scenario calls for a pause and reflection, according to Gilmore.

“There really is no good reason to endure suffering. Anyone who is truly miserable at a job needs to move on, especially now when there is so much opportunity out there in the job market,” she says.

For those who have a flourishing life outside of work and feel like that evens out for a job you are miserable at, Gilmore suggests still checking in with yourself.

“Examine how you spend your free time outside of work. Are you fully participating in things that give you fulfillment and joy, or are you spending all your time zoning out, sleeping or disengaging until the next time you clock in,” she questions? “Shutting down until you have to work again is an indicator that your life does not have enough balance to keep you mentally and physically well.”

So what can you look for in a possible new company to suss out a good work culture? Gilmore says having a trusted network of peers is key.

“A peer can be someone you work with directly or it can be someone in the same field at a different company,” she explains. “Widen your peer circle to include people with diverse backgrounds and agency experiences. They can be the best inside look at a company.”

Crowd-sourced review platforms for companies such as Glassdoor, or global digital community spaces such as Fishbowl, can also be great resources to get the inside scoop on a company’s culture.

At the end of the (work) day, Gilmore stresses that switching jobs or pivoting towards a better work culture can only do so much if you find yourself struggling mentally.

“If you’re struggling with your mental health, reach out to a doctor and therapist. A new workplace won’t cure depression, anxiety, burnout, or any other mental health concern. Prioritize your mental health make sure you see that area as something that needs attention and care as well.”

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