By Caspian Sawczak and Dr. M Lee Freedman
In part one of this blog series, we discussed how to recognize signs of anxiety and depression in ourselves and others. Part two focused on ways to respond to these signs once they appear. However, as important as it is to be able to recognize and respond to signs of anxiety and depression, we believe it is equally important to be proactive and try to prevent mental health issues from worsening or developing in the first place. In this post, we suggest ways to promote mental fitness in your own life, as well as strategies that you and your colleagues can use to foster a workplace culture where mental health is prioritized.
Mental fitness is not simply the absence of symptoms; it’s about being able to flourish in our relationships at work and elsewhere, feeling connected and purposeful, and responding to challenges in adaptive ways. As with physical fitness, there are practices and lifestyle choices that are critical for maintaining and enhancing one’s mental wellbeing.
Promoting mental fitness in yourself:
- Eat a balanced diet. Nutrition is very important for mental health. Without enough B-vitamins (found in foods such as leafy vegetables, legumes, and meats), people can experience memory impairments, “brain fog”, and irritability. Lack of Vitamin D is associated with depression, including seasonal affective disorder. Fatty fish, eggs, milk, and natural light are all good sources of Vitamin D, and many fruits and vegetables are rich in antioxidants that fight inflammation associated with depression. Eating these foods can help promote positive mental health.
- Make physical activity part of your routine. Physical exercise is also important, as it can improve cognitive functioning by promoting neurogenesis (the growth of new brain cells), boost your mood by decreasing stress hormones and increasing endorphins, and help you become less physiologically reactive to stress. It can also provide opportunities for social connectedness, which is not only helpful in coping with stress and mitigating its negative effects, but for improving your self-esteem and sense of purpose. Feeling connected to nature has is benefits, too: Just a couple of hours of nature exposure per week can lead to significant and lasting increases in happiness and wellbeing. Whether it’s an extended hike in the woods on the weekend, or a stroll through a park on your lunch break, it can boost mood, attention, cognitive flexibility, even empathy and prosocial behaviour.
- Practice relaxation techniques and optimize your sleep hygiene. Mindfulness can promote feelings of connectedness as well, and techniques such as meditation and body scans can help reduce stress and improve your ability to focus and think clearly. Relatedly, sleep is known to be intimately related to brain health and mental fitness. Lack of sleep can cause hyperreactivity in emotional areas of the brain (e.g., the amygdala) and impair the ability of the executive part of your brain (the prefrontal cortex) to regulate emotional reactions: You may find yourself experiencing mood swings and overreacting emotionally. On top of that, poor sleep can lead to hormonal imbalances and significant cognitive impairments.
Promoting mental fitness in the workplace:
- Normalize speaking up about one’s mental health. One of the most important things is that people feel comfortable speaking up—particularly to their managers—about their mental health and the things in their lives affecting it. Managers must take the lead in promoting a culture where such conversations are normalized, to help acknowledge mental health as part of each team member’s work experience. Consider starting a one-on-one conversation by saying, “I wanted to check in with you because I care. Please don’t feel any pressure to tell me anything you aren’t comfortable sharing”. You can give your whole team a heads-up that you will try to have these check-ins regularly, and with everyone, so no one feels singled out and people understand that it’s normal and acceptable to talk about their mental health. Still, some folks may prefer to speak to a professional outside of work: It’s important to acknowledge that you are not the best resource and to let employees know how they might access other mental health resources if they wish.
- Foster a sense of community. Getting the whole team together for a casual social event after work (e.g., drinks, a nature walk, playing a sport together) can help foster connectedness, the benefits of which we touched on above. Depending on what works for your team, your space, and your budget, you might also consider hosting yoga or meditation sessions, bringing in a nutritional counsellor, or providing special light boxes designed to prevent seasonal affective disorder.
- Instill mental health best practices while working. All these things can help your employees feel like they are recognized and valued as human beings, not just as assets. Encourage people to prioritize their own mental health at work by punctuating their screen time with breaks, reflecting on their experiences and learning from their mistakes instead of fretting over them, setting aside a few minutes for deep breathing or a body scan before joining a meeting, and practicing compassion and kindness toward their colleagues and clients.
We hope these ideas serve as a starting point for you and your team to promote mental fitness both in and outside of the workplace. Forming healthy habits is the best approach to keeping mental health issues at bay and will better equip you and your colleagues to respond if and when they do arise.
Designed to inspire action, our Headway movement helps business leaders prioritize mental wellbeing in the workplace by connecting them with actionable resources from established experts in the Canadian mental health industry. Our Headway team can help with resources, tools and an action plan tailored to your unique needs.
Ready to join the movement? Contact our Headway team to help.