The discussion around mental health at the workplace has become more prominent in the past few years, with an increase of studies that talk about the rising costs of burnout ($4.6 billion/year for the US economy) and the number of missed work days as a result (12.6 million for the UK economy in 2016/2017). A good first step in terms of raising awareness but not yet much conversation around how to prevent it.
More recently, thanks to the work of people like Prince William and his brother Harry who’s opened up about his 20-year mental struggle, it has moved higher up the priority list. Even discussed by the World Health Organization (WHO) who issued a call for fundamental changes in terms of safer workplaces and basic health coverage as a way to prevent health threats at the workplace.
It feels like finally change is coming, and employers will gradually start to encourage people to take better care of their mental health!
In the meantime, the responsibility lies with us while companies catch up with the higher-ups. We owe it to ourselves to ask the right questions of employers. In that context, how can you find a job that’s good for your mental health?
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What is a job that’s good for your mental health?
It’s important to set expectations from the outset. These will look different for everyone.
We all have different levels of tolerance to stress, ways we like to work, and work ethics and values. Therefore, there’s no “one-size-fits-all” ready to be found. Just be realistic about your expectations when you’re looking for a job that will be good for your mental health, and keep in mind that:
- It is not “the one” i.e. the dream job that meets all professional, personal, and mental health conditions.
- It is not a job for life. The likelihood is that you will only stay in the same job for 3-5 years. In fact, according to a study by Future Workplace, 91% of millennials expect to stay in a job for less than three years.
That’s why you should identify early on what’s important to you when it comes to mental health at work. One way you could approach this is by making a list of:
- Things that are a hard no or big red flag
- Things that are a must in order to help you feel comfortable
- Values. What do you value most in life and at the workplace? Is the job and company you are looking at a match?
As you run through this exercise, make sure you know yourself well. For example, what are your triggers when it comes to mental health: deadlines, last-minute requests, a micro-manager, lack of certainty? Which are the conditions that push your buttons and make you start to feel uncomfortable?
You should also be aware of what contributes to you having good mental health. For example, you might need to make it to your favorite sports class every week without fault, or be home before 7pm so you can spend time with your family. Or you might not want to undertake any business travel. Whatever it is, make sure you’ve identified these points so you can think of how to integrate them into your work life.
All of the above should help you create a much clearer idea of what you’re looking for in a job, or help you set boundaries in your current role.
When you’re job hunting
If you’re on the search for a new job, this is the perfect opportunity to do some due diligence and figure out whether it’s the right match, considering you want to take care of your mental health.
It’s never easy because both you and the environment you’re in are constantly evolving.
Here are four key considerations to keep in mind during your research:
1. Company culture
Websites like Glassdoor make it convenient to check up on a company’s reputation. Does it seem like 70% of the reviews are negative and people are unhappy? Then maybe it’s probably not the right place for you, particularly if people are complaining about being overworked.
But it’s not just about the negative feedback, the positive one also says a lot about companies. Check out their LinkedIn pages and their Instagram profiles to see how they talk about themselves and portray company culture. Do they share employee stories and give you insight into what it’s like to work there? Do they showcase fun activities and diverse policies that will make it an enjoyable workplace? These are all good clues.
Depending on how much detail you want to go into, you can look at sites like Crunchbase that cover the financial health of a company. This is particularly relevant if you are considering working for a startup. While it might seem exciting to join the fast-paced world of tech and work for famous names like Slack or Uber, a lot of chaos and uncertainty comes with it. It’s not for the faint of heart and can pose a serious change, especially if you’re coming from a corporate background.
Last but not least, check the company’s website and see what they talk about when it comes to compensation and benefits, diversity and inclusion, and policies on professional growth. Even small details like their take on sustainability can have their own story.
2. Job Descriptions
Don’t just skim through a job description, apply in a hurry, then get disappointed by your impulsive choice. Carefully read it and watch out for these subtle, but unmistakable red flags:
- Flexible; no 9-5 mentality a.k.a you’ll be asked to work long hours or outside of normal working hours
- Proactive and “hands-on” a.k.a. you’ll be left to figure out a lot of things on your own, with little to no guidance
- Tenacious and resilient a.k.a. there could be a volatile environment, with lots of change and short deadlines
- Calm demeanor and gravitas, even under considerable pressure a.k.a. high-pressure environment, potentially competitive, a lot of responsibility and demand to deliver
- The ability to “roll up your sleeves” to get the job done a.k.a. asks you to do all the work by yourself, perhaps even take on the work of more than one person
- Flexibility to sometimes work outside of regular hours a.k.a. this will happen a lot, perhaps even on evenings or weekends
- Resistance to stress a.k.a. prepare for a high-pressure, high-stress environment
This is to be taken with a pinch of salt as they don’t always reflect a negative work environment. Look beyond the required skills and years of experience, which only present the traits of the ideal, unicorn candidate.
If it gives you a bad feeling or you think the place might be too hectic, trust your instincts. It says a lot that companies are willing to publish these types of job description, without even thinking about the image it’s giving to candidates. However, if you still want to apply, consider asking questions during the interview to determine whether the environment confirms your job description suspicions.
These are a great opportunity to find out more about the company and how they approach the work-life balance. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking the employer has the upper hand and you have to make yourself desirable or disclose your current salary. But it’s also your chance to interview them and decide whether or not you want to work there.
Ask good questions during your interview to determine if it’s a fit. If flexible working hours are important to you and it wasn’t mentioned in the job description, now is the time to ask. The same goes for team set-up and the manager’s approach to work, to find out whether the team might be understaffed, if there’s a tendency for micro-management, or other ways of working that are important to know about.
Pay attention to the types of questions they are asking you as well. Are they insisting on how you cope under pressure or deal with stress? Have they asked you if you’re ok to work on weekends? Chances are, they might hide alarm bells under this precautionary look.
Benefits are also worth considering. For example: are they trying to entice you to work there with promises of free lunches, after-work drinks and nap spaces? These are all great things to enjoy, but nowadays some of them are practically table stakes. And while they can certainly make the workplace more enjoyable, they don’t make up for a negative work environment or passive-aggressive coworker. In the end, benefits should be seen as an added bonus.
4. Mental health advocates
This is still rare, but there are companies that are starting to put measures in place to support better mental health at work. They might collaborate with organizations like Sanctus, who want to normalize conversations around mental health, or be training employees on mental health first aid. Anything of the kind is a positive sign that the company is taking steps in the right direction, showing their commitment to creating better workplaces. To find them, check their websites directly for any signs – or look up for partners (like the ones previously mentioned) to find out who their customers are.
If you can, talk to people who work at the company you’re interested in. This is a safe bet to find out what it’s really like to work there and how people feel about it. They can give you insight into what the overall atmosphere is like, perhaps even tell you if it’s the right thing for you.
If you’re worried about a high-pressure environment, ask them questions that can shed some light on how large projects are managed for example. Or you might ask if they’ve ever seen mental health be discussed at work, or how they think people at the company would react to the topic.
This should serve as a good start to get out there and know what to look for in a job that’s good for your mental health. Remember, you don’t have to be job hunting to make the above work for you.
The most important thing to keep in mind when taking care of your mental health is to know yourself: your triggers and your limits. Set proper boundaries to protect yourself, but also so others know what they can or can’t ask of you.
After all, you shouldn’t feel guilty for making your mental health a priority and creating the conditions for that to be a possibility. Don’t settle for any less!
Emma is a digital and social media marketer by profession, and mental health blogger in her spare time. She is on a mission to raise awareness about mental health – particularly in the workplace – and is working towards it no longer a taboo. She feels strongly that work can be more than just a 9-5 to pay the bills and in creating better experiences in the workplace. Read her blog here.