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The Year in Review: How Work Affected our Mental Health 

Ever-changing working conditions negatively affected our mental health this past year. Here’s how we can help ourselves recover.

We all know the pandemic wreaked havoc on our mental health, but perhaps one of the most surprising contributors was the change in our work situations. Humans are creatures of habit. Whether we realize it or not, our subconscious craves consistency, because it offers feelings of safety and security. So while you may not have always enjoyed your pre-pandemic daily commute to and from the office, it was actually psychologically good for you. Then the pandemic hit, and routines quickly became obsolete. And our mental health took a hit.

According to Maxwell Maltz, author of Psycho-Cybernetics, it takes an amputee an average of 21 days to adjust to the loss of a limb. This discovery, which dates back to the ’60s, soon became the basis for self-help gurus to suggest it takes the same amount of time to establish a habit. But the truth is, it takes a lot longer than three weeks of consistency to adjust to a new routine. A study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology by Phillippa Lally and colleagues from University College London found it actually takes about 66 days.

As any of us can attest, our work routines were continuously changing in 2021. Even if you’ve settled into a remote-work routine, your home and family life continued to change—this in turn could have affected your work regimen. And all of that has contributed negatively to our mental health.

Even now, as work has started to return to “normal”, you still may be finding it overwhelming, stressful or anxiety-inducing. Maybe you’ve returned to an office that’s been relocated or reorganized to accommodate hot desks; maybe you have a new hybrid work schedule. Even if your employer has determined you’ll work remotely permanently, they may have new requests. For example, you may be asked to work in a space that has a door or use a desk and chair that they’ve provided—more change. And in the latter case, it can feel invasive to have your employer “in” your home with a material presence as opposed to just on virtual calls.

So what can you do?

Give yourself time and compassion when readjusting to new routines. Recognize that change is difficult—and that if you’re feeling low, it may not be solely due to the work or your environment, but perhaps the inconsistency of the working environment that’s causing these emotions. Try to set a few “regular” dates in your schedule to give yourself a sense of routine, regardless of your work situation. Block off Tuesday at lunch to have a walking phone date with a friend, or set your clothes out before bed so you get “dressed” for work every day, no matter what.

Recognize that being around others is good for you—even if it feels like effort. We’re social beings. Many of my clients who had finally settled into a remote-work situation didn’t want to put on dress pants, particularly when those pants no longer fit, or wake up an hour earlier to make the commute. But once they got to the office, they felt better. They reported having more energy, or feeling more productive. That’s because although change is hard, being in the office, around others, is actually good for our mental health. Although it might be easier to stay home, we want to be together. So, aim to have as much contact as you can each week.

Work smarter, not longer, to boost your happiness. Innovation is a collaborative process. Some of our best work isn’t actually accomplished while sitting alone in front of our computers; it happens while walking down the hall, running into someone in the elevator, or brainstorming an idea with a friend over coffee. It’s those incidental conversations and connections that we make in person that improve our productivity, increase feelings of self-worth, and boost our mental health. If you’re working remotely permanently, figure out a way to be around others at least once a week. Schedule in-person coffee dates with your team or ask to work in the office at least once a week, even if it’s not required.

Make sure your work space works for you. For some, being at home can be stressful. If you’re in a dysfunctional relationship or dealing with other family pressures, going into the office might have been a safe respite; a chance to focus solely on the work, without thinking about home or family. Consider how you can change your work environment, even if you can’t rely on your employer to change it for you. Consider a work-share space or changing jobs that allow you to work in an office outside your home.

While we can’t control everything about our working situations, we can make small adjustments in an effort to boost our mental health. If you’d like to talk about opportunities to support your mental health, contact a member of Medcan’s Mental Well-Being team at mentalwellbeing@medcan.com.

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