Mental health workout: four ways to flex your mental muscle

With all of the challenges work throws at you, you need to keep on top of your wellbeing to stay healthy. Robyn Sandilands — head of legal at Pets at Home — shares her pragmatic advice for maintaining your mental health at work.
A woman with blonde hair stands next to a bank of desks in an office, she is smiling and holiding a mug.

Mental health and wellbeing are being openly spoken about in the workplace more than ever before.

The fact is that everyone has mental health, just as they do physical health. Like physical health, sometimes people feel fit and well and sometimes they don’t. It is part of being human.

The stigma around mental health is slowly eroding, as well it should – people aren’t told to ‘buck up’ and ‘crack on’ for breaking their leg, so why should such a ridiculous approach apply to the mind?

Open dialogue around mental wellbeing is one of the few positives to come out of the pandemic. A realisation that people matter. Wellbeing and mental health matters.

However, promoting mental wellbeing requires more than just terminology and some glitzy resources; it needs action from the top.

With more colleagues than ever reporting fatigue, mental fog, anxiety, isolation and burnout, leaders and managers have a responsibility to start the dialogue with our teams.

My urgent advice would be to take time to check in and let them know that if they are feeling a certain way – it is OK not to be OK.

I do not have all the answers, far from it, but I have learnt from my past mistakes and recognise the importance of having and building mental resilience.

As a head of legal with a busy job, a team of six, two children under eight, balancing life and law is always challenging, but I have learnt to treat my mental health as I treat my physical health. I look after it and I do what I can to build some ‘mental muscle’, so that in tougher times I have tools to rely on.

Here are my tips for mental resilience which continue to help me thrive.

1. Build boundaries

“I’ve put a meeting in your diary,” has been emailed to me over 1,200 times in the last year. It has felt like a land grab.

I am now protective over my diary and I have a rule: for a one-hour slot, the meeting is 50 minutes maximum. This allows everyone time to re-set, move and centre themselves before the next thing. It makes days of online meetings much less exhausting.

If you can, set a regular block of meeting-free time. Pets at Home plc has introduced meeting-free Thursday afternoons.

This comes from the CEO and is a brilliant Group-wide initiative to help people get their heads down on tasks without the constant interruptions. It is great for providing some mental space.

We also have a ‘fire break’ day that I look forward to every month. It is an extension of the meeting-free Thursday afternoons and the rules are simple: one day a month there are no meetings.

Time to re-prioritise, focus and look ahead.

It sounds a heavy time investment but has a fantastic impact on productivity and mental clarity.

2. Get moving

Stand up, shake it out, put on a favourite song or a cheesy pop classic and dance, or just move for a few minutes. This clears the head, gets the heart rate going, and works wonders on toddlers and adults alike.

I also have a list of songs which are instant confidence and mood boosters for me. These are personal choices but if I am feeling overwhelmed or have a daunting task ahead, the right song can hit the right note with my anxiety.

I try and go outside as much as I can, even if just for a few minutes at a time, whether to walk around the block or my garden or just stand outside and breathe. It acts as a reset and gives some time to focus.

3. Talk it over

There would be thousands of lives saved every year if people felt able to talk about mental ill-health.

The first part is recognising that you are not feeling fine. If you are not sleeping, have a low mood, anxiety, feel anger or sadness that doesn’t abate – or a range of other symptoms that are out of the usual for you – please talk to someone.

As managers and leaders, we should check in on our teams regularly, but the obligation is on everyone – colleagues, family members, and friends – to ask, “Are you OK? Do you want to talk?”.

Sometimes asking the question will make all the difference.

If you feel unwell, seek professional assistance or talk to a mental health first aider. Telling someone that you don’t feel good is a first step to getting support or resources that might work for you.

4. Be kind

Hand in hand with talking it over is to keep your internal self-talk in check.

The advice is to talk to yourself as you would a friend or your child. Would you be harsh and critical of them? Probably not.

If my internal mean streak is coming out, I find that some time journaling to get the meanness out on paper helps. It shows it for what it is and allows me to work out what the problem actually is so I can focus on how I am feeling and what I need to do differently.

I usually end up with a much kinder solution than that which was being offered by my mean self-talk.

A most important reminder is that it is OK not to feel OK. We are human beings, not human ‘doings’, and if you think you need time to reset, reprioritise or get some help then trust your instinct, trust yourself and do it.

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