How Much Does Your Job Affect Your Mental Health?

Many people view the relationship between work and mental health as distinct. They show up, mentally check out, and hang around until it’s time to actually check out. Have you ever wondered how much your job affects your mental health? Chances are, it’s more than you think.

mental health

By the numbers

Most people spend eight hours a day, five days a week, at work. That may not seem like much, but those hours add up. Research has shown the average person will spend 90,000 hours at work, roughly one-third of their lifetime. Considered in aggregate, it becomes clear how work can have such an impact on our lives and mental well-being.

An emotional toll

That’s not necessarily unwelcome news. If your job allows you to support interpersonal relationships, manage quality work-life balance, and maintain a sense of purpose, your time there will be a net positive for your mental health.

Sadly, the reverse is also true. Miserable working conditions will have negative effects on your emotional well-being. The World Health Organization lists the following as potential mental health risks found in work environments:

  • Inadequate health and safety policies
  • Poor communication and management practices
  • Limited participation in decision-making or low control over one’s area of work
  • Low levels of support for employees;
  • Inflexible working hours
  • Unclear tasks or organizational objects
  • Bullying and psychological harassment

Any job is not necessarily better than no job. A University of Manchester study found adults with poor-quality jobs suffered from higher levels of chronic stress than unemployed individuals. Adults with quality work showed the lowest levels of stress.

Taking your vitamins

One study called the relationship between work and mental health “analogous to the influence of vitamins on physical health,” and we this analogy provides a useful viewpoint.

Mentally healthy work feeds your mind. A well-fed mind retains reserves of willpower, stamina, and concentration for when stressful times arrive—and even in the best jobs, there will be stressful times.

But if your job is a constant source of stress, withdrawal, and negative feedback, your brain will be starved of the vitamins it requires. When tough times arrive, you won’t have the reserves to weather the storm. You also risk developing more severe mental conditions, such as anxiety and depression—just like how a vitamin-starved body is more prone to illness.

The vitamin analogy is also apt because poor mental health will affect your body, too. Stress, for example, can cause headaches, neck pain, insomnia, muscle spasms, and weakened immune response. More seriously, chronic stress contributes to ulcers, high blood pressure, and an increased risk of heart disease.

How to proceed

If you’re enjoying a positive job, be proactive and assess what you love about it. Is it the flexible hours? The collaborative culture? The autonomy to pursue side projects? Doing so will create a profile so you’ll know what to look for on your next job hunt.

If your job negatively affects your mental well-being, proceeding can be difficult. You may feel trapped for personal or monetary reasons. There’s no one-size-fits-all option, and much will depend on the situation, company culture, and your relationship with your supervisor.

Here are some suggestions for various situations:

  • If you’re having trouble maintaining work-life balance, create a schedule that includes substantive breaks, from small, daily rests to entire days off for mental recharging.
  • If a negative coworker ruins your days, decide if you can redirect that negativity or if you need to talk with someone in human resources.
  • If your workplace is overly competitive, keep collaborative coworkers close and focus on your own passions.
  • If you’re dealing with a bad boss, take steps to short-circuit their negative tendencies (e.g., reassuring micromanagers with frequent updates). If your boss is a bully, you need to either find help higher in the company or look for the exit.

Finally, if you believe you may suffer from anxiety or depression, seek professional help. Getting a check-up when you’re physically ill is not a sign of weakness nor is it something to be ashamed of. The same goes for your mental wellbeing.

Your job affects your mental health

We tend to think about physical fitness when considering the relationship between work and health. We worry about sitting too much or how busy schedules leave little time for cooking. And while OSHA keeps workplaces free of physical hazards, there is no government agency to address workers’ mental wellbeing.

Thankfully, many companies have started to incentivize mental health, but our culture still has a way to go. Until then, we need to do everything we can to support salubrious working conditions, both for ourselves and our coworkers.

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