How to protect your mental health at work

Interview with the clinical and occupational psychologist Laura Gigliodoro, author, together with Edoardo Ercoli, of many books on the subject

Home Life Lifestyle wellness How to protect your mental health at work

Every day, we spend about half of the time we're awake doing our job, which is a very significant part of our lives. In certain contexts or periods, work can become a source of stress, anxiety and personal malaise, with very different origins and ways of manifesting itself. The protection of our mental health, both at work and in life in general, is essential: we must ask ourselves about our psychological state, try to understand the reasons for any negative stress and find solutions both to protect ourselves and to solve problems. We talked about this with Laura Gigliodoro, clinical and occupational psychologist, and author, with Edoardo Ercoli, of the manuals Working as a wellness psychologist (2019) and Practical techniques and tools for psychological work (2021).

Dr. Gigliodoro, what are some possible strategies for relieving work stress?

"We must remember that stress is part of life and that it is not always a negative factor; the stress condition is the response of the organism to a demand, to a stimulus of the environment. When we live in a positive state of stress (eustress) we experience for a limited period a suitable emotional activation response and effective energy use (like an athlete on race day). However, when this response condition perpetuates itself, becoming prolonged and constant, it turns into negative stress (distress). In this case, we experience a depletion of the necessary mental and physical resources and the body is unable to recover, with the consequent tendency to get ill. We need to know how to distinguish the responses and the stimulus in order to know what we actually feel stressed about and what the responses are that we have put in place - thoughts, emotions, behaviours - but also physiological responses (insomnia, tachycardia). Moving on to practice, I find the time-management Pomodoro Technique very useful, to channel and optimise concentration and energy. It is also useful to focus weekly and daily on the objectives you want to achieve, taking care that they are specific and realistic, and taking time to monitor the situation and adjust. Often the lack of well-defined and appropriate objectives in terms of time and resources causes stress itself."

Having goals is important, but how can a person prevent the achievement of these goals (and any failures) from having a very negative influence on personal well-being?

“The quality of the definition of objectives is essential. The results of work are in themselves subject to error, which is part of the process of human learning: we learn to walk by falling, we learn to speak by making mistakes countless times. As adults, we no longer allow ourselves to make mistakes, and there is a tendency to experience an error not as failing to achieve an objective, but as a lack of value and expertise on our part. It is the meaning that we attribute to the event – in this case the mistake – that affects our well-being. The most advanced organisations envisage errors, or project failures, supporting teams towards the achievement of the goal, assessing the process as a whole, not the individual outcome. Karl Popper, speaking of errors, recalls the importance of being willing to admit that he has made a mistake, and of being able to make a mistake; only the possibility that this may happen normalises the experience of the error”.

When does it make sense to talk to colleagues or your superiors about any illness?

"It is fundamental to your own well-being to share your emotional life with respect to uncomfortable conditions, while certainly taking into account the quality of relationships with colleagues and superiors, as well as the working climate. Not only that, it is also important to consider the effectiveness of your communication: conditions of malaise are often expressed in the form of complaints for their own ends. It is more effective to communicate your discomfort in an assertive manner, by explaining your mood, by expressing how the other's behaviour might help us, together with any suggestions for improvement”.

Detaching is also essential to maintaining your equilibrium – how can you do it in the best way?

"The term detach reminds us of the importance of disconnecting a connection; just think of the gesture of disconnecting the plug: the power is no longer on, the device switches off and does not continue to be powered. Whether we are talking about breaks within the day, holidays or the end of working hours, in each case it is important that we pay attention to boundaries. Imagine closing a door when we take a break, finish our work day, or go on holiday: we have to take care of this door. This can sometimes mean simply removing the ability to receive work e-mail notifications, silencing them. This may seem trivial, but most managers are not educated to take care of their own boundaries. Another element of care is to ensure that exits and re-entrances are organised, avoiding and anticipating as much as possible the intrusion of activities and deadlines during holiday hours/days”.

Working in a "beautiful" work environment, maybe customising it with plants, photos, something of our own, can it help?

"The working environment affects not only our mood but also our performance level and stress conditions. The beauty of the environment in which we live and work – whether in the office or at home – is also very important in terms of physical and mental energy. There are many elements that you can introduce, including through multi-sensory visual, auditory and olfactory stimuli. In addition, there are organisational contexts that – particularly after the pandemic – allow dogs to enter the workplace, generating positive feedback in terms of stress reduction and increased sociability and collaboration.”

Today we talk more about mental health, but probably not enough. What do companies need to do to take a further step towards protecting it?

"The World Health Organization reminds us that health is not without malaise, and a welfare-focused organisation is not a company where there is no significant risk of stress-related work. It is a company that invests in services and activities aimed at improving the quality of the professional and personal life of its employees and their families”.

Generally speaking, what advice would you give to people who are experiencing stress and mental illness at work?

"While it is true that the body sends psychosomatic signals under stressful conditions, likewise taking care of the body – through sport, meditation and relaxation, outdoor activity – contributes significantly to reducing conditions of harmful responses to stress. It is important to learn how to distinguish the situations that generate stress (people, activities, types of requests), in order to change the source of stress, or to distance and protect yourself by being less exposed. Recognising your response to stress is also important, in terms of symptoms, whether emotional, behavioural or physiological: in this sense demotivation, drowsiness, and low concentration can be symptoms of stress. In situations of severe discomfort it is often the satisfaction of the primary needs that changes, so restoring a healthy diet and good quality of sleep are the first steps; next, it is very important to intentionally devote time and space to the dimension of your own pleasure, in order to nourish the dimensions of your personal well-being in their entirety."