When Your Job Harms Your Mental Health

Haven’t we all been Naomi Osaka at some point in our lives?

OK, we may never know what it’s like to be the second-ranked woman in tennis, or the world’s highest-paid female athlete.

But like the sports star, many of us have been stuck in situations that were detrimental to our mental health — at work or in our personal lives — feeling torn between societal expectations and self-preservation.

Ms. Osaka chose to care for herself ahead of the French Open, when she announced she would not “do any press” because the news conferences could be damaging to the mental health of the players. True to her word, after winning her first-round match on Sunday, she skipped her postmatch news conference. As she later explained in an Instagram post, she was feeling vulnerable and anxious, and press events give her “huge waves of anxiety.”

Her decision to avoid the press did not go over well with tennis officials. Ms. Osaka was fined $15,000, and the leaders of the four Grand Slam tournaments — the Australian, French and United States Opens, and Wimbledon — threatened to expel her from the French Open.

Instead, Ms. Osaka announced she would withdraw from the tournament. “The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the U.S. Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that,” she wrote in her social media post.

Regardless of the type of work you do, your job can affect your mental health and vice versa. And like Ms. Osaka, you have choices when it comes to preserving and improving your well-being.

“We would not fault her if she had a sprained ankle,” said Benjamin F. Miller, the chief strategy officer for Well Being Trust, a national foundation focusing on mental health and well-being. “But when it comes to mental health — which we know is equally, if not more, important than your physical health — we have this arbitrary standard of what’s acceptable and what’s not.”

A survey of over 5,000 employees conducted last year by the advocacy group Mental Health America found that 83 percent of respondents felt emotionally drained from work and 71 percent strongly agreed that the workplace affects their mental health. While the respondents were not representative of the general population — they most likely found the survey when visiting the organization’s mental health screening tools — their responses show just how anxious some workers have become.

Women and people of color may shoulder a disproportionate amount of emotional stress both in and outside of the workplace. Women are at least twice as likely to have had depression as men, according to federal data. And Black people are less likely than non-Hispanic white people to receive treatment for depression or prescription medications for mental health. A 2020 report from Lean In and McKinsey & Company noted that Black women were less likely to get the support they needed to advance in their fields than white women.

Ms. Osaka, who is of Black and Asian descent, acted admirably when she stood up for her needs, several mental health experts said. It can benefit all of us to be on the lookout for signs that we might need to make changes at work or get professional help, they added.

Evaluate your feelings.

“Everyone has some awareness of their baseline functioning at work,” said Dr. Jessi Gold, a psychiatrist at Washington University in St. Louis. So if you start to notice you’re losing interest in your job or your productivity plummets, it’s an indication that something is off, she said.

For example, you might notice that you dread starting work each day, or you feel so anxious that you have trouble thinking about everything that you’re supposed to do. Perhaps your emails are piling up and you aren’t communicating with people as much as you typically would. If you’re feeling ineffective in your job, you may also start to engage in more negative self-talk, like: “I’m no good at my job anyway. I’m useless,” Dr. Gold said.

An even bigger warning sign that work is affecting your mental health is if work tanks your mood to the point that it starts to damage your personal relationships, she added. For example, you might find that you’re picking more fights with your partner, becoming more irritated by your children or avoiding social activities in ways that you normally wouldn’t.

Think about what might be causing these feelings. Is there one aspect of your job responsibilities that is causing most of your distress? Do you have an underlying health problem like depression that has not been treated? Is it some combination of the two?

Get support.

Once you realize you need help, seek out a trusted friend, mentor, co-worker, peer group or therapist, said Inger Burnett-Zeigler, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine who researches Black women’s mental health.

This should be a place “where you can feel seen, heard and validated, a place where you are able to be your fully authentic self without fear of judgment or negative repercussions,” she added.

Many employers also offer employee assistance programs that have a variety of services, including short-term counseling from licensed therapists or referrals to outside experts who can help with the specific problem you’re having. (These services are often touted as confidential, but even so, some employees may feel uncomfortable using them.)

Your company may also have partnerships with other organizations that provide wellness classes or free career coaching. It’s worth investigating all the options, the experts said.

“Employers have become much more aware and frankly progressive in how they’ve been managing and treating issues of mental health over the last several years,” said Michael Thompson, president and chief executive of the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions. “The pandemic has actually reinforced that in spades.”

Mr. Thompson’s organization recently did an online survey of 151 employers who buy health care services and found that 72 percent were seeking to improve mental health access for their employees and 16 percent were considering doing this in the next one to two years.

Set boundaries.

Once you’ve found a supportive person to hear you out, together you can start to come up with a game plan to improve your work life and emotional well-being.

Think about what you need most: Is it an accommodation like a short-term disability leave, or would it simply help to have more flexibility in your work schedule? Do you need to set limits as to when and how often you respond to work messages?

Before addressing any of this with your supervisor, be sure to consider how your proposed solution would work within the context of your team, because that’s what your employer will want to know as well. In other words, show how your idea will benefit the group as a whole.

“If you’re really stressed out and have a mental heath issue that you’re wrestling with, it’s very difficult to think about the team more broadly,” said John Quelch, dean of the Miami Herbert Business School in Coral Gables, Fla., and co-author of the book “Compassionate Management of Mental Health in the Modern Workplace.” Even so, he added, “you have to try to get in the head of your employer.”

During the pandemic, mental health problems have been pervasive. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report concluded that in June of 2020, 40 percent of adults in the United States had been struggling with mental health or substance abuse issues.

It’s OK to be open and admit to yourself and those you trust that you’re struggling right now, said Paul Gionfriddo, the president and chief executive of Mental Health America. In fact, he added, “Most good employers are going to be asking, ‘What can I do to help you?’”

You may also decide to keep your concerns private and address them with your therapist, and that’s OK, too. Creating healthy work boundaries is vital, experts said.

“Remember that you are a worthy and valuable human being, separate from your job function, productivity and even how you might be evaluated by others,” Dr. Burnett-Zeigler said. “When feelings of self-doubt and not belonging show up, don’t lose sight of the unique talents and ideas that you bring to the workplace.”

But say your efforts to address your emotional well-being at your job have fallen flat, or the work environment has become toxic. In that case, the experts said, it’s probably best to start looking for another job, especially if you have become the target of ridicule, threats or abusive comments by a manager.

It is illegal for an employer to discriminate against you simply because you have a mental health condition. And according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, if you have a qualifying condition like major depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, you have a legal right to a reasonable accommodation that would help you do your job — for example, the ability to schedule work around therapy appointments, a quiet office space or permission to work from home.

“What we need to do is to recognize that anxiety is real, depression is real,” Mr. Gionfriddo said. “This is a really good time for people to do that personal assessment, because there are opportunities to find more meaningful work out there.”

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