In our recent interview for The #WorkLifeShow, Kathryn Wilson spoke to mental health expert Lisa Jones, who offered us some insights into mental health in the workplace and in particular the impact that stress has on our bodies and how companies can be supporting the mental health of their employees and supporting their mental health boundaries.
Lisa started by explaining how psychotherapy wasn’t in fact her first choice of career path, but she actually had big dreams of becoming a performing artist and working on the West End. It was when she was in her mid teens that she was forced to scupper that plan, facing various injuries, as well a number of devastating chronic health issues, including ME, fibromyalgia and endometriosis.
It was through navigating these various health crises that she started thinking about the relationship between her physical health and mental health, realising that she needed to pay more attention to her own needs and behaviours and set boundaries for herself, and what she calls her ‘non-negotiables’ in order to ensure her health didn’t suffer.
She didn’t rush into the next thing, but instead spent the next few years trying to figure out her next step, when her mother brought home a prospectus for a South Wales university for a degree in counselling and psychotherapy. Having come from a family of health care workers, it seemed an obvious choice: “I knew that I wanted to do something that meant I could help people. I knew I was a natural listener and I was fascinated by people’s behaviours and our physical health.”
Lisa believes that having a background in the performing arts helps her connect with her emotions and be empathetic to others: “Arts in any way are brilliant at helping people learn to understand their emotions and express how they are feeling. As an actor you need to understand your character and what makes them tick so you need to have an understanding of emotions, and the flip side is being in an environment where you can express.”
Lisa encourages everyone to find something they are passionate about as their own form of therapy, and for her it’s Salsa dancing and teaching: “I love Salsa. I first started before I went to university, and then when I started studying I found a local class and met loads of amazing people. I refer to it as my therapy.
As a therapist I advocate for everybody having therapy, but also finding something else that’s really beneficial for their own health and wellbeing, and for me that’s dancing. So even though I can’t go out and dance or teach at the moment, I still put on music and dance around my kitchen just because it lifts my soul and my spirit!”
Lisa also believes that stress precipitated many of her health issues, with an international move kicking things off: “I was 16 and midway through my A-levels when unfortunately we had to leave Guernsey and move back to the UK.
That was a huge change for me and I felt like my entire life had just been thrown upside down. I didn't know anybody, and there was a huge amount of stress at that time - starting a new school half way through my A-levels, having to play catch up and not fitting in. I was desperately unhappy and really struggled.”
It was at this time that Lisa started experiencing hemiplegic migraines, a rare form of migraine which presents like a stroke. “At the time, we had no idea what it was. So that's where things really then started to spiral.
I was 28 before I got the official diagnosis of hemiplegic migraine - 12 years later. I didn't really know when the migraines were going to happen, as there didn't seem to be a pattern with it, but with everything else, it seemed stress related - our bodies are very much responding to stress even if we’re not aware of it.”
Moving further into the topic of mental health and stress, Lisa is encouraged by the fact that people are starting to understand more and talk about it more, which in the long run will help remove the prevailing stigma.
She believes in a multifaceted approach as people often incorrectly believe that physical health and mental health are two separate entities: “People need to understand that everything is connected.
Our physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, financial, health and wellbeing - all of it is very much interlinked and affecting one another. In terms of stress, people experience stress in different ways and will have their own perception of stress and threshold of how much stress they can manage before they start to have problems.”
Lisa believes that a huge contributing factor to stress is how busy people are, particularly now with remote working: “There seems to be an expectation that people need to be on and busy all the time. People are working far more hours than they used to. They are absolutely not prioritising their health, their wellbeing and their self care.”
Another challenge she mentions is social media and digital tech, and that while it definitely has its place, it also has a lot to answer for: “People's self-esteem, their value, their self-worth is hugely impacted, and I see this with the clients I work with and in schools I train in. I call it ‘comparisonitis’. People are constantly comparing themselves and judging themselves, which impacts one’s mental wellbeing and how they feel about themselves.”
Lisa again stressed how this is all connected, in that people who are not feeling okay about themselves are not going to look after themselves properly, which will affect their physical wellbeing, and the worse they feel physically, the less inclined they are to want to do something to make themselves feel better and it becomes a vicious cycle.
This then filters into the workforce and therefore affects performance, so Lisa feels it is integral for companies to be focusing on both mental health as well as physical health and wellbeing: “We can prove mental health has a direct impact on our physical health and vice versa.”
“We need to take into account our emotional health and wellbeing and our spiritual health and wellbeing. Ultimately, we are in a stage now where companies cannot just do a tick box exercise and expect everything to be great. If this last year has shown anything, it's that people need to be at the absolute forefront of companies, because at the end of the day, this isn't rocket science.”
Lisa gave the following example for perspective: “If somebody is not feeling well in any capacity, are they going to perform at their best? For example, would you ask someone who just had bad flu to run five miles as fast as they can to make a deadline? It’s the same with our mental health and wellbeing. People are expected to perform when they're just not at capacity.”
Another issue for her is for companies to understand the difference between mental health and mental illness: “They're absolutely not the same thing. So if we want to address mental health, we need to be looking at strategies to support people to be mentally strong, mentally resilient, mentally fit and mentally well - not talking about or focusing on the problems, because ultimately it should always be prevention rather than intervention.”
“Companies need to be thinking about their people and remembering everyone's an individual, so no one thing works for everyone. Be aware that there are different things for different people. If people don't feel supported or valued, they're not going to perform at their best.
Companies need to be encouraged to have a culture shift, led from the top. It’s all very well having people on the ground that are really passionate about making changes, but if you've got the senior leaders or execs not buying into it, ultimately nothing will actually ever change long term. Companies need to be open and honest as well as people expect authenticity and support.”
On the topic of how she manages her own work-life balance, Lisa believes it’s important to be realistic and remember that we are human and we can’t be ‘on’ all the time, and it’s critical to have boundaries. “I try to practice what I preach. The most important thing to me are boundaries.
And I say this to everyone I work with in any context. Boundaries are crucial in terms of maintaining our health and wellbeing. Putting boundaries in place around our time - the most essential is having downtime, even if that is just five minutes in someone's day. Just taking five minutes to be quiet, be still, just be with ourselves.”
Boundaries should also include what Lisa calls her ‘non-negotiables’, for example not working on a weekend. “It’s about learning to say ‘no’ and learning what our values are, what matters to us, what we’re prepared to do, what we’re not prepared to do, and what we’re prepared to accept from other people.”
And ‘no’ can also be ‘not right now’. It's okay to say to somebody, ‘yes, I would love to help you with that and I can do that, but I'm not going to be able to get that done for you for two weeks’. She says it’s important we manage those expectations for ourselves and for others. Having those boundaries in place is also about keeping ourselves feeling like we are safe and protected.
Lisa is also a huge advocate for gratitude to counterbalance negativity in our thoughts: “I write in a gratitude journal every night before I go to bed, writing down at least one thing that I'm grateful for and one thing that's been positive in the day, because the way our brains work is we will look for the negative and focus on that. So writing something down is actually training our brains to look for the good as well, which is so simple but really beneficial.”
Lisa understands that our human instinct is to say that we are fine, even when we are not, but she goes on to explain that there are a number of signs to look out for that may indicate signs of stress. “The first is to pay attention to changes in our bodies. Our bodies will always give us the signal that we are stressed.”
She gives as examples changes in the digestive system like stomach aches or tummy upsets, headaches or flare ups of eczema or psoriasis. Other signs can be things like suddenly biting your nails, tapping or fidgeting, or social changes, like not wanting to socialise or even wanting to socialise more often than usual - both of which are avoidance strategies.
According to Lisa many people don’t always make the association of physical symptoms being signs of stress so the key is to be aware of any changes and be honest with yourself and ask if there is anything that has changed: “If there's a change in behaviour, then that will be a sign that somebody is probably feeling a lot more stressed than they realise.”
A huge source of stress in Lisa’s view is change, and she stresses the importance of companies helping their employees with these transitions, particularly now with many people going back to the office: “As humans, change is not our favourite thing. Of course some people are chomping at the bit and are super excited to get back to the office.
Others are filled with dread and having anxiety attacks about it. So companies have to be aware, first and foremost, that every single person is an individual with their own experience, their own perception of things, and will be having their own views on that.”
Lisa encourages companies to have lots of conversations with their employees about these changes, because it’s often then that you find commonalities and find solutions: “Have the conversations with staff, understand what those worries are, and figure out what the company can do to alleviate those worries.”
She advocates for companies to have guidelines in place to help people with mental health concerns, with the understanding that executives are not therapists or psychiatrists. “They're not trained to deal with those types of issues.
But they absolutely can support people and sign-post and open it up, so that if somebody is feeling stressed at work they know where to go, what the procedure is and what their options are. And reminding people that ultimately we are all human beings, no matter what role we're in, no matter where we work. We have all lived through this experience.”
Lisa concluded the interview with some tools and tips for small ways for one to manage their own stress. She is firstly a huge advocate of mindful breathing. She explains that the sympathetic nervous system is responsible for a high alert state due to the production of adrenaline and cortisol while the parasympathetic nervous system brings us back into balance, most effectively through breathing:
“Breathing is our best friend. It is this incredible inbuilt tool that we all have that is single-handedly the most effective way for us to manage stress, anxiety and feelings of being overwhelmed. It's about consciously being aware of the breath and learning to breathe from the diaphragm, because this activates the parasympathetic nervous system.”
She also advises keeping a notebook handy and doing what she calls a ‘brain dump’ - writing down everything that is in your head. “ Often when we write something down, we realise it’s not actually as bad as we thought it was. This helps control the feelings of being overwhelmed.”
Her final tool is to be mindful of and take satisfaction from small everyday tasks: “When we're feeling overwhelmed, doing something as simple as making our bed in the morning is an achievement for our brain to recognise and reward us with a little bit of dopamine. And then that will continue to help us feel motivated and driven to do the next thing.
But it's so important to literally take little tiny steps. I refer to this as toe-by-toe as sometimes steps are too much for someone if they're feeling overwhelmed. Let's go toe by toe - do little things - and give ourselves permission - that it's okay to stop, it's okay to take a breath, and focus on one thing at a time.”
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