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10 Tips for Staying Sane at Work

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"I had to drop by work and put in a couple of hours on my way over."

That is what my friend said to explain her late arrival at a wedding shower we both attended.
"It's Sunday," another friend said. "Why are you working on the weekend?"
"I can't get it all done during the week," my tardy friend replied. "I work every weekend just to keep up with my regular workload."

This may sound like a familiar conversation among your friends. More and more, people in workplaces everywhere are reporting that they are experiencing a constant state of 'overwhelm' and mental exhaustion.

We can't talk about mental health without talking about our brains. And there is a lot of new information we are learning about that wonderful amazing machine which can help us all create more opportunities for positive mental health -- individually and organizationally.

I have read some of the research, and in honour of Mental Health Week, I have assembled some key points into the following "10 Tips for Practicing Positive Mental Health at Work"

1) To Do More, Do Less

Your best ideas and greatest moments of insight don't happen while you are consumed with a huge project at work. They happen in the shower! They happen when your mind is quiet.

If you want to be more creative, more innovative and more productive, you have to 'work less' and create more opportunities for insight.

Work a 'normal' day, take your breaks (and make time for insights), and head home energized and ready to engage with your family. Get a good night's sleep and head back in to work refreshed and ready for another day! And -- take weekends off!

2) You Can't Be Here If You Are There

You have two distinct networks in your brain: the default narrative network -- your internal representation of the outside world, of what you have attended to over time, your interpretations or 'stories' about what is 'real', and the direct experience network -- your full 'presence' in a particular moment and space.

When you are stuck in what you now know, and what you have done in the past (the default narrative network), you are not 'present' (the direct experience network). Not to mention you are not able to take in all the rich streams of information that are more reflective of what's actually going on than of your interpretation of what is going on.

You cannot be in both networks at the same time. Practice mindfulness meditation and learn to regularly access the direct experience network. With practice, you can begin to change your brain.

3) Shrinkage Happens

Your brain is more than an amazing logic-processing machine. Its main main function is to keep you alive. Every moment of the day, your brain is deciding whether or not to avoid danger (away mode) or to approach reward (toward mode).

The away mode gets most of your attention (because, you guessed it, our ancestors spent a lot of their time looking out for tigers). When you are in away mode, you are focused on looking for what is wrong (problems). When you are focused on what is wrong, you experience tunnel vision (shrinkage happens) -- you are actually limited in terms of the amount of information to which you can attend.

While "away" is more hard-wired into your brain, the toward mode gets the best results. Being positive (toward) brings broad vision and novel solutions.

4) Say It, Don't Spray It

While we want more positive emotion at work, this does not mean that we want to encourage people to suppress negative emotion. In fact, when negative emotion is suppressed, it grows.

So when negative emotion occurs, we want people to feel free to identify it (say it). Then they can re-appraise/reframe it and choose the best course of action (they are more mindful and less easily 'hijacked' by the negative emotion). And then, move on.

'Spraying' it -- talking on and on about it -- is as unhealthy for people as suppressing it. The negative emotion grows and it usually grows ugly.

5) 'Dope' Is Good, 'Cort' Is Not

Dopamine is the neurotransmitter or desire. It is required in order for you to take any action at all. Positive emotion creates a 'hit' of dopamine in the brain. It is fundamental to any action, and certainly to productive, inspired and motivated performance at work.

Cortisol is released when negative emotion is present. It is the stress response, and too much of that will not only impact your performance and relationships, it can also kill you.

6) If I Am Foe, You Are Slow

Your brain chooses whether or not I am friend or foe to you. If you see me as foe, as the enemy, your brain won't work as well as it would otherwise. You will be so focused on the threat (away mode) that you will likely miss important information and ideas that I have, and you will misinterpret me and my behaviour (missing out on potential ways for us to connect and collaborate together).

When people in workplaces see each other as a threat, they are in away/negative/tunnel/disengaged mode, and results suffer.

When we create opportunities for people to connect socially and see each other as friends at work, the outcome is a more positive and productive workplace.

7) Don't Get Choked By Your SCARF*

Sometimes the very presence of a leader creates a threat (sway) response. Leaders can think about what they are saying and doing in terms of this acronym, developed by David Rock:

S - Status -- Is what I am about to say/do something that builds people up, or tears them down? Even a performance evaluation can create a significant threat (away) response.

C - Certainty -- Do people understand what is expected of them? Am I sharing information freely?

A - Autonomy -- Once people understand expectations and have what they need to be successful, do I let them go ahead and do it? Do I honour their needs for things like flexible work schedules and flexible hours?

R - Relatedness -- Am I an authentic leader? Am I vulnerable? Do my team members see me as a human being who makes mistakes, and who experiences a variety of emotions?

F - Fairness -- Are people treated fairly? Is our organization a socially responsible one that cares about the community and cares about what's important to our employees?

8) Tell Me You Love Me

When you provide lots of positive recognition, particularly recognizing people's strengths (and looking for opportunities for them to use them), you get increased dopamine, increased motivation, increased energy and increased results.

9) Eat The Carrot and Burn The Stick

External incentives and reprisals don't work in the long term -- you might get short-term compliance, but not the commitment or engagement you need for sustained high performance.

You are far better to wrap your staff in a nice, warm SCARF (see # 7).

10) Use It Or Lose It

What you attend to, grows. You have different neural networks: one for problem solving, decision making and working memory, and the other for self-awareness, social cognition and empathy. Where you spend most of your time determines your results. Your brain is changeable (neuroplasticity) and where you focus your attention will impact your results today and tomorrow.

My wish is that we all practice positive mental health, not just for this week, but for every week of the year!