Have you ever considered we might value the wrong things at work, and perhaps we’ve been conditioned into the busy trap, where every minute is diarised and productivity is about output alone, and if you just had a minute to catch your breath, you might actually do better? This is where the importance of mental space comes in.
Hustle culture or wearing busyness like a badge of honour is costing people both their mental and physical health. According to the World Health Organisation1 globally, 12 billion workdays are lost because of depression and anxiety every year, and in the UK a representative survey2 of over 3500 people found that just over half (51%) experienced at least one symptom of burnout.
While there is huge industry variation, the majority of employers have focused more attention on mental health in the wake of Covid 19, but still, only 36% of employees who’ve experienced mental health problems at work felt able to talk to their managers.3
For sure, the stigma around mental health continues, people are suffering, and we have work to do. When it comes to stigma and culture, the people you interact the most with and the environment you spend your time in have the biggest impact. This is good news for individuals and begins to explain the disconnect between organisational narrative around mental health, and the lived experience of employees within that organisation.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the enormity of workplace well-being, especially the mental health elements, so it’s important to focus on the people and things you can directly impact. These are also likely to be the things that make the biggest difference to you and those around you.
Most people have no real challenge with the ‘doing’ parts of life and often doing, or busyness becomes a distraction from feeling or ‘being’ because it’s easier. Emotion and feeling enable you to process what you experience, to heal if you need to, and to create useful future neurological patterns. When you deny yourself, or your team, the mental space to just be, you also reduce your capacity for resilience, tolerance compassion, and a whole load of other helpful neurological responses.
Remember we are made up of a whole load of physiological responses driven by neurochemical reactions to our emotions and feelings. They absolutely influence how we experience the world – for good and bad.
When you have enough mental space to process what you experience or declutter your mind of ambient emotion – like fear, frustration, and overwhelm, then stress reduces, creativity and productivity increase, and you are more likely to feel satisfied with your lot. You will feel the benefits both at work and at home.
So how do you create mental space at work?
First of all, space does not just happen, you have to actively make it – whether that be time or physical space. You also have to commit, it’s so much easier to fill space than create it, and let’s be honest, if something feels hard, uncomfortable, or risky we can usually find many busy reasons (or excuses), not to do it. This space is how you stay grounded, connected to who you are and what you do, and critically, how you identify when you may need to make adjustments to stay well.
Start by exploring what space for mental well-being looks like, what helps, and what hinders you within your specific environment – whether that be your team, yourself if you mostly work alone, or your physical space, expectations, and experiences. It’s important that any action you take to support mental well-being feels personalised to your circumstances and work.
Mental space is about your attitude and behaviour, the choices you make, and the practical actions you take. There is a very long list of things that help you create space, and the purpose of exploring was to find which are most relevant for you.
Universal themes for creating mental space:
1. Start with yourself –
You can’t pull someone else out of the lake if you are already drowning yourself. It’s not selfish to prioritise your own needs most of the time, most impactful people do. When you are at your best you have more to give and are probably nicer to be around. Remember that resilience is not about toughing it out or doing more with less. It’s about rest, refuelling, and maintenance. The better you get at these the further you can go.
Understanding what energises you and what depletes you is key. Your mental well-being is a bit like a bank account, you have to put more in than you spend or you’ll finish up overdrawn or even bankrupt. We can manage being overdrawn occasionally, but usually need to take action to correct it – whether that be reducing spending or replenishing the account.
The things or people that energise you are your deposits and those that deplete you are your withdrawals. If you don’t know what these are, make space to find out. Grab a bit of paper, draw a line down the middle, and put energisers on one side and depleters on the other. This is also a great exercise to do with the people you work with when you are considering how you create space for well-being.
A final note on energy, sometimes you have to spend more than you expect and find yourself short, knowing how to make a quick deposit in your mental bank account makes a big difference. Think about what gives you a quick boost, this is often about changing your physiological state, which in turn changes your mental state to something more helpful. Things that shift you usually involve one or more senses, so a favourite smell, sound, getting a bit of fresh air, or even breathing – the point here is to reconnect with yourself.
2. Choose what you focus on –
Most of us are quite unintentional, we drift through life – particularly at work, dealing with what crops up, reacting to others, and hopefully working down our ever-increasing to-do list as we go. Often we’re listening to a somewhat harsh internal dialogue about our performance, how we compare, and what we think others might be thinking – it’s really quite exhausting.
Mental space allows you to slow down, interrogate this and choose what is helpful to focus on. It may be the actual job you’re doing, it may be your narrative or self-talk, would something kinder serve you better? Whether you chose it or not, your prevailing emotion impacts your physiology, when these are fear-based or judgemental you are likely to have less cognitive possessing power, less compassion, and feel less connected, none of these are good for your mental well-being.
Choosing to consciously focus on the stuff you can impact, perhaps even things that fill your mental bank account, calms down your nervous system, makes you feel more in control, and gives you the space to choose your response, rather than just react.
Remember you always have some choice, even if it is only your attitude. You choose how you show up and what you bring by way of energy. You can’t control other’s reactions or behaviour, but you can choose your own and this is really powerful.
Make sure you know who you want to be (not just what you do), and how you want to feel, behave, and impact the world – when you know, you start to notice when you are aligned or not, which helps you with your energisers and depleters. A word of caution here though, most people have a negativity bias when it comes to processing. This keeps you safe on the one hand, but it also means you may find it easier to list the things you don’t want, over what you do want. What you consciously focus on you notice, which impacts how you feel, so stay focused on the things you want in your life.
Mental space is about slowing down, deciding what to focus on and therefore how to act.
3. Stay Connected –
Have you ever noticed that when there’s a big crisis people crawl out of the woodwork to be part of it, the pandemic was a great example, at the beginning all sorts of people offered all sorts of help, much of which faded as we started to normalise what we were experiencing. The human need to be connected, or to belong is incredibly powerful in terms of mental well-being. From an evolutionary perspective, it makes us safer, it gives us focus, purpose, and a sense of control – all important for regulating our neurochemistry and therefore our physical state.
From a work perspective, when you know why you do what you do, you understand the value of your contribution and it helps you stay grounded in the things that matter to you as a human. Serving, contributing, and helping others all make you feel safer neurologically, provided you have the personal reserve (or enough in your mental bank account).
When we feel connected it is also much easier to stay present, in the moment, and less bothered by intrusive thoughts or less distracted by the list of other things that need our attention. Pay attention to when and where you feel most connected and present, these are likely to be part of what energises you.
Remember that humans are social creatures, most of us don’t fair well in prolonged isolation. Make time for social interaction and connection with your fellow humans in and out of work. You don’t need to share your innermost secrets but finding points of connection with those you work with beyond the job itself will pay dividends in terms of engagement and mental well-being.
4. Ritual –
Whether we think it or not, we all use rituals all the time to get through everyday life. Think about how you brush your teeth, the order in which you do things in the morning, how out of sorts you might feel if you had to skip a step or two because you were late – it’s all ritual. Our brains work on pattern recognition and repetitive action, that is the only way we get to process all we experience. Think about your rituals and routines, they are there to keep you connected, safe, and calm.
For some ritual is meditation, or mantra, for others it’s running, gardening, being out in nature, or reading a good book with a cup of tea in your favourite cup, for other it’s a bubble bath, a checklist before you start a task or use a piece of equipment, trust yourself to use what feels right.
5. Scheduling –
We all need space to be, to recalibrate and reconnect with ourselves, and sometimes each other at work, don’t be afraid to diarise this.
6. Create healing cultures –
Make space for conversation, and learn to listen, when you pay attention people will tell you what matters and how to help them. Whether you are the boss or not, make sure expectations are explicit, behaviour and boundaries are clear, and people feel involved, seen, and valued.
The single most important thing in creating mental space at work is a culture of awareness, acceptance, and occasional accommodation of each other’s need for space. You can put in as many practical support strategies, or physical spaces as you like, but if people don’t feel safe, or they feel judged they won’t use them, and you won’t have actually created mental space, you will have amplified stigma.
Model what you want to see around you and be courageous enough to start conversations when you need to. Remember it’s usually the little human things that make a big difference.
- Norris-Green, M. and Wheatley, D. (2022) CIPD Good Work Index 2022. London: Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.
Lynda is a prominent leadership voice, author and change activist in the healthcare sector. She established Health Service 360 in 2001 and spends her time helping leaders and health professionals to lead courageously, make tangible change, value themselves, and empower their people. She believes it is each of us, not big organisations, religions, or governments, that change the world.