The World Health Organisation estimates that anxiety and depression currently cost the global economy $1trn in lost productivity each year, while the 2019 Mental Health at Work report by the Financial Times revealed that “burnout is a growing public health crisis”, with half of workers unsure about where to turn for support.
Employers have reason to take mental wellbeing more seriously, but this isn’t just a problem for business: the effects of poor mental health on us as individuals have far reaching consequences for every aspect of our lives. In a 2018 survey by the Mental Health Foundation, 74% of UK adults admitted to being so stressed that they felt “overwhelmed or unable to cope”.
In 2013, I qualified as an ICAEW chartered accountant while working at a Big Four firm. My time there spanned various tax and deals teams, where high-pressure, unpredictable working hours and endless to-do lists were the norm. I then co-founded an angel investment network, raising money for UK start-ups.
After going through various stressful periods in my 20s – and realising that no matter what people achieve on the outside, mental wellbeing hugely affects our quality of life – I delved into my own personal development to build my self-awareness and ability to cope with the inevitable ups and downs of life. These were things I had not learned from decades of formal education, but I gradually discovered books, teachers and courses that had a lasting positive impact on my outlook and mental resilience. After a few years of helping friends through their personal struggles too, I turned my long-term passion into a career by joining mental wellbeing improvement business Mind: Unlocked to build online courses, as well as writing and public speaking about mindset optimisation.
Just like regular exercise can help maintain our physical health, we can make a habit out of practices that improve our mental wellbeing and resilience, that also fit into busy life. These are five useful ways I’ve found to cope better with hectic modern living.
Meditation’s popularity is booming as a scientifically-backed daily method to improve our mental wellbeing, lauded by many of the world’s most successful businesspeople. A growing number of studies have found that regular meditation can have positive effects on our physical and mental health, resulting in better sleep; reducing stress; and improving our levels of focus and emotional wellbeing.
Over time, inwardly checking in, even for just a few minutes, can help us stay calmer by slowing down our racing minds. Meditating also makes us practise staying in the here and now, rather than allowing our minds to worry about the past or future – a common habit shown, in a 2010 Science study by M A Killingsworth and D T Gilbert, to promote unhappiness.
As with exercise, the benefits of meditation build up gradually over time, and there are many ways to get going with a regular habit. Popular meditation apps like Insight Timer, Headspace and Calm suggest thousands of techniques. There are also free videos online or, in big cities, in-person guided classes at local meditation studios. Taking longer online courses such as those by Deepak Chopra, or Mind: Unlocked’s practical 21-day beginners’ guide, can also help us get used to practising regularly. The books Miracle Morning by Hal Elrod and Atomic Habits by James Clear, provide great advice on sticking to positive daily habits.
Looking after your physical health
Our mental and physical health significantly, reciprocally affect each other. The Mental Health Foundation acknowledges that stress can contribute to somatic issues incuding obesity, heart disease and even our risk of cancer. Equally, eating nutritious food, exercising regularly, and making quality sleep a priority can greatly improve our mental wellbeing and performance.
Dr Rangan Chatterjee’s 2017 book The 4 Pillar Plan discusses preventing so-called lifestyle diseases – which in 2018 contributed to 90% of UK deaths – through a combination of how we “relax, eat, move and sleep”. I also like the theory behind the book Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, for a sustainably healthy relationship with our food.
The American National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults get seven to nine hours of sleep per night, while the NHS warns that being chronically under-rested can lead to serious health conditions. Developing a regular bedtime routine and avoiding mental overstimulation and blue light from screens, which affects sleep cycles, can help us to wind down before we sleep – and charging our phones outside of the bedroom overnight can help us resist late-night scrolling. The book Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker gives further practical tips using cutting edge sleep-science.
Exercise-wise, finding an activity we enjoy that works for our budget and lifestyle is key. Research has found that lower intensity, strengthening movement like yoga or pilates helps calm us down instead of adding to high cortisol levels from a stressful day. Smart trackers such as Fitbit or the Oura ring can also make us more aware of, and so improve, our quality of sleep, exercise levels and other metrics.
Smoking and excessive alcohol intake commonly affect our mental and physical wellbeing. The NHS’s alcohol support website (nhs.uk/live-well/alcohol-support) has extensive advice on reducing consumption. Allen Carr’s The Easy Way to Stop Smoking, often recommended by GPs, has helped millions of people, and is the most effective way I have found to give up smoking.
Being mindful with technology
One of the most significant developments in modern life has been the amount of time we spend online. In 2018, UK media regulator Ofcom reported that the average British adult checks their smartphone once every 12 waking minutes, with insiders – including Google design-ethicist-turned-technology-activist Tristan Harris – acknowledging that our phones and apps are designed to capture as much of our attention as possible. Research by Korea University in 2017 linked smartphone addiction to anxiety and low energy levels, with heavy social media use particularly found to affect our mood.
Often, we are not consciously aware of the extent of the time we spend on our tech devices, so usage-tracker apps like iPhone’s Screen Time, or Digital Wellbeing for Android, can enable us to make better choices. Choosing to have no-phone times of the day, or phone-free rooms in the house; turning off all but essential alerts and notifications; and deleting social media or other potentially time-wasting apps can also help. The books How to Break up with Your Phone by Catherine Price and Off by Tanya Goodin are great reads for taking better control of our relationship with technology.
Taking real breaks
Drawing a line between work and personal time will also foster good mental health, even if it’s just for a few minutes. Under pressure at work, it can be tempting to sit at our desks for hours at a time. But taking a short break every 60-90 minutes can boost our productivity.
Research by Queen’s University Belfast suggests a sedentary modern lifestyle contributes to around 70,000 UK deaths annually. In 2015, scientists at the University of Utah School of Medicine found that getting up and walking for just two minutes an hour (for example, to speak to a colleague in-person) can reverse the negative effects of prolonged sitting periods. Frequent movement can also make us feel less sluggish and frazzled at the end of a busy working day; and going for a lunchtime walk outside can help prevent vitamin D deficiency and seasonal affective disorder.
Pets are a known source of increased calm and relaxation, and taking time out to play with your dog has a wealth of wellbeing benefits. And if you don’t have the time or lifestyle to keep a pet full-time, you can always borrow one: the BorrowMyDoggy and DogBuggy apps allow people to find and look after a local dog part-time. I love using the app to enjoy the benefits – reduced stress, nature walks, and more connection with my community – that having a dog brings.
Longer breaks are important too. Try to have boundaries around appropriate evenings or weekend days to take proper mental time fully away from work. And use your annual leave. Research studies have found that vacation time away can help improve our life satisfaction and anxiety levels. Choose holidays that will improve your sense of wellbeing: a 2018 report by the University of East Anglia found that spending regular time outdoors in nature can have wide-ranging health benefits, including improved emotional wellbeing and reduced stress.
Understanding yourself better and seeking support
One of the most powerful ways I’ve found to improve my mental wellbeing is better understanding how and why I react to the world around me. The book Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett (based on a Stanford University course) gave me great insight into what I wanted my career and life to look like, as did the profound personal development course iDiscover360 in London. Author Byron Katie’s books also helped me take responsibility for my feelings; and reading Untethered Soul by Michael Singer allowed me to better observe my thoughts and emotions.
It is also important to prioritise having supportive people around us, both inside and outside of the workplace. The long-term Harvard University Study of Adult Development found that embracing community is one of the most important factors for a long and happy life. At work, having a trusted mentor (if possible, both inside and outside of our team or industry for different perspectives) can help us to feel supported and heard. Supporting a working environment where team members feel able to talk openly about their struggles is important to prevent issues becoming chronic or unmanageable, while having friends we can really talk to – and being that kind of friend for others – is also invaluable. With the UK charity Mind sharing that an estimated one in four people in the UK experience a mental health problem in any given year, the struggles we can all go through are more common than most of us think. As we take ownership of and prioritise taking care of our own mental wellbeing, we have more capacity to reach out to others who need it.
Jessica Warren is co-founder of Mind: Unlocked, a mental wellbeing movement for people who are practical, proactive and a little bit sceptical