5 Steps to Balancing Work and Mental Health

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Psst, hey you.

Yeah, you!

I’m going to let you in on a secret:

I hate work.

I know, I know – it sounds preposterous. If you know me even a little bit, you know I’m dedicated, responsible, and tend to find and keep jobs for a while. I’ve excelled in just about every job I’ve ever had even when challenged and even if I didn’t stay forever, I learned a lot and made lasting change while I was there. I loved my last job so much it was heartbreaking to say goodbye when the time came.

Those don’t sound like words of someone who hates work huh ?

Well, I’ll let you in on the real secret: work is an absolutely excruciating experience for me, even if I’m doing great at it. It’s a huge trigger for my mental illness.

Surprising as this realization may be to some, this is actually a pretty common thing with those of us who really struggle to balance life and work, more common than you’d think.

I guess there’s a lot of misconceptions out there about what mental illness is supposed to look like. I think in a lot of people’s minds it’s someone who’s a hot mess and can’t get out of bed to hold down a job and constantly screws up at work.

Sometimes that’s true, but more often than not, those of us with mental health issues tend to be the overly dedicated, hardest working, highest performing employees. In my experience it’s like coming from behind in a race. I’ve got a lot of things stacked against me so I try extra hard to get ahead just to prove I’m valuable even at the expense of my mental health.

This attitude, of course, led me to several instances of burnout and deep depression, the last one putting me in the hospital and very quickly ending my career (as I knew it) for good.

Needless to say, it’s been a long, exhausting journey for me just to get to a semi-peaceful place but it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way for you. Below, I’ve distilled my experience into a few steps that may help you navigate the narrow balance between work and life with a mental illness.

Step OneTake a Minute, Breathe and Listen to your Body and Feelings

Sometimes the first step is that you just have to stop what you’re doing and notice how your life is making you feel. The sooner you do this, the better. Believe me.

Often times we think we’re happy, successful, etc. but really our inside voice is telling us a completely different story. We could be totally miserable and not know it until we break down, I know because that’s what happened to me.

I’ve always worked hard to achieve my dreams. I put myself through college at the age of 24 so I could give myself a “better” life than just waitressing my days away. I moved to Florida to fulfill my destiny as a new graduate, taking on jobs that were bigger than anything a little farm girl from Virginia could dream of. For a while there, I was soaring, making money, making friends, running marathons, living in a posh apartment complex, going to the beach on weekends. Living the life.

Oh and I cried…. every. single. night.

I was in panic mode literally all the time, I jumped at the slightest noise.

I had such bad headaches I couldn’t sleep.

My body hurt. Just like all over for no apparent reason.

I gained 30 pounds out of nowhere.

I was miserable.

Something was not right, I knew but I pressed on because that’s what I had been taught to do.

It took me two more years, a couple job changes, a marriage and a complete breakdown to understand what was going on. I’m kind of a slow learner sometimes 😛

Long story short, I was carrying so so much baggage from job to job, relationship to relationship, challenge to challenge I couldn’t go forward anymore. I was roughly forced to sit with my feelings and listen to what they were telling me. And I’m glad I finally did.

What they said was this “You are deeply unhappy, especially in this line of work, it is too stressful for you to manage this, your marriage, and OCD at the same time. Something has to change.” I had to admit it. I was defeated. I stepped back from my beloved job and took a break from literally everything for two weeks to just listen to my body and soul.

Since leaving my “big girl” job and returning to a simple hostess position at a local restaurant, I’ve felt a lot of things. It’s an interesting mix of relief and failure, failure that I couldn’t keep up in a high stress corporate job, relief that I couldn’t keep up in a high stress corporate job. Clearly this was not the career path for me but I was still salty I couldn’t keep up.

Overall though, it’s been a pretty positive adjustment that took me probably way too long to make. I spent a lot of time not listening to my body or my heart because the alternative (not succeeding at a “real” job) was so scary to me. It was only when I had to step back that I realized that fear was making my body hurt and exhausting me to a point I couldn’t stand any longer.

Step 2-Make Change Where you Can, When you Can

Just after I was first hospitalized, I enrolled myself in a program to manage my OCD. I cut back a little bit on work so I could attend the program 5 days a week in the afternoons. I still held my big girl job (kudos to them for being flexible and understanding).

For a while that worked. I felt so much better and I was balancing my mental health and my job beautifully. Things were really looking up.

But of course, that didn’t last. I was still participating in the same behaviors just with more energy from new medication and treatment. Within a couple months, I was in a worse spot than before I was hospitalized. It was then that I realized, no matter how much work I do OCD was not going away. My mental illness will always be with me. My marriage will always be with me. I will always be with me.

My job was the one thing I could change.

So I did. And it’s made a huge difference in my life.

Of course, leaving a job isn’t the right decision for everyone – it just so happened to be the right choice for me at the time. Some people don’t get that luxury.

So what do you do when work stresses you beyond belief? If you work in a corporate setting, the Family Marriage and Leave Act (FMLA) might be right for you-it can protect your job while you take time off to get treatment or just to recover. Or you can enroll in a local Intensive Out-Patient Hospitalization Program which can be done before or after work in most cases.

On a more practical level, you can start setting boundaries. Here are some of the ones that have worked for me:

  • Letting your boss know you’ll be taking some regularly scheduled time off each and every month.
  • Using PTO and sick leave for mental health days.
  • Moving your seating assignment away from someone who negatively affects you in your department (pro-tip: try sitting near someone you really get along with or who is very calm, not by yourself. It makes a huge difference).
  • Having lunch away from your desk with friends.
  • Not working extra because you feel pressured to.
  • Saying no to requests and assignments that infringe on your mental health or family time.
  • Saying yes to reasonable requests that increase your overall happiness as well as benefit the company.
  • Having a safe place to go when feeling overwhelmed.
  • Setting a meeting schedule in your calendar so you get to dictate when meetings happen, not the other way around.

And so on! Step 2 is all about changing what you can when you can. That’s going to look different from person to person, job to job, and time to time. Watching your actions is key here- any action you can take, no matter how small, can make a huge difference in your mental health positively or negatively so watch carefully.

P.S. You can learn more about FMLA and other awesome resources in our Work Module!

Step 3 – Be Realistic about your Capabilities

One of the hardest things for me, as I mentioned in the intro, was to admit I just couldn’t keep up. But once I did, life got infinitely better for me.

I’d always prided myself on being the very best (the best there ever was) at all the things, no matter what I was doing.

I was never taught to match my intensity to the current situation.

What do I mean by that? Well, in college (the second time around) I would be so upset when other students would do awesome on an assignment and I would only do okay. The thought never crossed my mind that I was working 50 hours a week as well as going to school full time while these younger students were probably able to focus solely on their assignments due to the simple fact that their parents were paying their tuition.

I just thought I sucked.

So I tried harder and eventually succeeded with a ton of extra effort and energy thrown into the mix. Unfortunately because that was a successful strategy – I ingrained in myself that I had to put forth that effort every single time no matter what the situation. I basically got stuck in overdrive for years.

Or take the time I was a brand new manager after only being in the corporate world, for oh…. a month. It never occurred to me that there would be a learning curve that I was woefully behind due to just being so new. So I tried even harder, learned even more, listened to podcasts, got goggle eyed over Tony Robbins for a bit. Even with all that I would still make mistakes (like any normal human being in that situation) and would break down and call my mom telling her how much I sucked at the job.


I can see now, of course, how over my head I was but I had no idea back then. I just expected myself to be a hard machine with all this preset knowledge when in reality I was a soft kid with no prior experience drowning in the vast corporate sea.

So the moral of Step 3 is that sometimes you just can’t keep up and that’s okay. Understanding your capabilities at any given moment and having compassion for yourself is vital to keep your mental health in check while working a stressful job.

Maybe it’s not the right job. Maybe it’s not the right field. Maybe you just don’t know enough yet and it’s as simple as taking a few courses to get back on track. It’s nothing personal, it’s 90% just circumstance. So step back, try to be realistic about what you can do in the moment and give yourself a break.

Step 4 – Get The Right Support

Then, of course, it’s really really hard to step back and give yourself perspective when you’re in the midst of stress and/or a depressive episode. That’s where friends, family, mentors, and supportive people come in.

Don’t be fooled though, this step is not just about getting support – it’s about getting the right support. While you may have friends and mentors at work, unless they are exceptionally emotionally intelligent they’re going to be far too close to the situation to give you accurate feedback.

I have the very good luck of having friends and an S.O. who tell me the truth, even when I don’t want to hear it. When I’m in a emotionally unstable place stressed by work and/or life it’s really important for me to reach out and get their viewpoint. Having support outside the workplace helps me make good decisions in tough times.

Step 5 – Know When to Leave

Okay, now this is a complicated one.

Sometimes a place is just toxic and you should blow that popsicle stand tout suite. No bones about it.

Of course, it’s rarely that simple. We have to look at our own behavior too in order to make a good decision.

What do I mean? Well, sometimes we’re toxic too and need to get healthy before making any big decisions about jobs, relationships, etc. Recognizing this distinction is one of the pivotal moments in adult life. You’re going to mess it up a couple times before you get it right, but take my advice if you want to make the right decision without too much heartbreak and burned bridges.

I am speaking entirely for myself here, but when I’m unstable I don’t allow myself to make big decisions. As hard as it was, I had to wait and work to get emotionally right before I could really know I was making an accurate decision to leave my career and even then I questioned it a little bit.

The thing is, everything hurt when I was depressed. Work place problems were magnified, I was harder on myself for mistakes than I normally would be and it was just a lot easier for me to get swept up in office drama. I didn’t have a very good handle on what actually working in my profession was really like without the depression goggles on.

After I came back from my hospitalization and before I started my IOP, I gave myself time off like I’d never done before to step back and look at everything. I took a week and let myself stabilize. After that, I worked for a while without the heavy filter of OCD and pressure I’d been putting on myself. For a brief moment, I got a glimpse of what the company was like without my own fears clouding the picture.

And that’s when I made my decision to leave.

Not because the job was bad or the people were nasty or anything like that. In the end it was simply because this wasn’t the career I wanted to put my all into, this wasn’t the company I wanted to give my life to. On the flip side, I was able to see I wasn’t right for the company either because of my mental health struggles. That was it.

So the moral of Step 5 is to always do what’s best for your health but don’t make big decisions rashly. Knowing when to leave isn’t clear cut in any situation, let alone when mental health issues are involved. Here are some practical ideas on what to do if you find yourself in this particular situation at work:

  • Make a Pro/Con list – I’ve found that dividing it into 4 quadrants (Pros of Staying, Pros of Leaving, Cons of Staying, Cons of Leaving) helps you get a dispassionate, holistic perspective on whether you should stay in a work environment (works on relationships too).
  • Consider other factors before making big decisions– Are your meds at a correct dosage? Do you have support from a doctor or therapist? Is your lifestyle conducive to good mental health? Is your family situation chaotic? Is there just one co-worker who’s a total jerk? All of these factors and more can make a good to mediocre job situation seem unbearable so it’s best to evaluate them before moving forward.
  • Evaluate your work responsibilities-Does public speaking stress you out big time but somehow that’s a main function of your job? Are you a creative, fun, outgoing person chained to a data entry desk job all alone in a windowless office? Maybe you’re in the wrong job or position for your particular mental health struggles. I know for me, my job involved a lot of heavy logistics, data entry, and strict deadlines – all things that made my free floating creative heart quiver in fear and ramped my OCD up to unbearable levels. Evaluating your work responsibilities against your strengths and preferences can be a powerful, emotion-free way to decide whether to stay or leave your job.
  • Think about your goals– If you’re going to have to put 110% into something and potentially risk your mental health for it, make sure it’s something you really care about and will bring you happiness, success and financial stability in the long run. If a job doesn’t check all of those boxes and it’s making you miserable, it’s probably time to move on.

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