We’ve all had days at work when subpar mental health has made it difficult to be productive. Both low mood and anxiety can make it hard to focus and concentrate. When you’re feeling like this, here are some tips to try.
1. Reach out to a friendly colleague.
When people are feeling depressed or lonely, they tend to assume other people aren’t interested in them or don’t care about them. This is usually a misperception.
The problem is that it creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you think others don’t care about you, you’ll isolate yourself, and become more lonely.
If people don’t know what’s going on for you, they can’t offer you support. Try letting people into your world. Reach out to people you haven’t talked to in a while. For example, a colleague who does your job at another company, your grad school buddies, or people you’ve worked closely with in the past but haven’t spoken to in months. When you reach out to your loose connections, you’ll learn more people care about you and are happy to hear from you than you thought.
Express an interest in a colleague’s work. They’ll appreciate it and you’ll get a mood boost from having done a prosocial behavior.
2. Do two hours of focused work.
When you’re off your game, spending eight hours being hyper-productive seems overwhelming. In reality, the average time people do focused work, distraction-free work in a day is only a few hours anyway. If you plan to do a two-hour spurt, you’ll perceive you’ve accomplished a lot, without your goal being so daunting you struggle to get started.
If focusing for two hours seems beyond you, then consider taking a mental health day rather than being at work.
If you’re prone to boom and bust cycles with your energy, consider limiting yourself to two hours. It’s tempting to keep going if you get on a roll, but that’s not always the best decision overall. Sometimes low mood at work is simply exhaustion. For example, because you’ve overworked the previous day.
3. Take a mental health day.
Sometimes all you need to get your mojo back is a day off. Mental health is a valid reason to take a sick day if you’re suffering from a problem like depression or anxiety.
How should you spend the day? Spend it taking care of yourself. Make yourself a meal that’ll last you a few nights (reliving pressure for the following day.) Do laundry. Sit outside and read a book or a magazine. Make a doctor’s appointment to handle any issues you’ve been putting off dealing with. Go for a stroll around the block. Order some vitamins.
Revisit any mental health resources you’ve used previously that were useful to you. For example, re-read a book on anxiety you’ve found helpful before, or go back through your therapy homework/worksheets if you’ve previously worked with a therapist.
If you’re struggling, it’s easy to get into a mindset that nothing will make any difference. In reality, small actions can be enough to turn the tide.
4. Learn something.
When you’re feeling low, you can end up feeling like an ATM that has had too many withdrawals and not enough deposits. A way to combat this is to invest in your skills.
If you’re not feeling the best, a long learning session may be beyond you. Instead, try a 30-minute learning activity. Watch that webinar you’ve been meaning to get to. Google that spreadsheet skill you want to master. Try an app for improving your writing.
If I feel the urge to procrastinate, I often find that a short learning session leaves me feeling ready to start whatever it was I was putting off.
Again, put a time limit on it to prevent yourself from getting exhausted and to help your focus. Aim to gain an immediately useable insight in your 30 minutes rather than a more lofty goal like “learn everything about….”
5. Brighten up your workspace.
If you’re stuck at work (or your WFH station) but not concentrating, you may as well do something. Clean your computer screen. Find some art to put on your wall that inspires you. Find a funny cartoon that expresses an experience you have and put it on your door. Buy a cheap bunch of flowers. Make an upbeat playlist for getting things done, or a “flow” playlist for when you want that type of concentration.
If you struggle with self-compassion, consider putting some reminders around your office. For example, find a self-compassion quote and make it into a piece of art e.g., cross-stitch it, or whatever you’re into. Don’t want it on full display? Put it inside a cupboard door.
Make your workspace more ergonomic. Or, put in place other strategies that help you feel physically better while you’re working. For example, if I’m typing a lot, I will sometimes ice my wrists to prevent pain. The way I do this is very low tech. I put a freezer ice pack on my arm, wrap a dishtowel underneath it and around my arm (so the ice pack isn’t directly on my skin), and attach it to my arms with rubber bands. How we feel physically and how we feel emotionally are closely interconnected.
If you’re struggling with your mental health at work, don’t just try to power through it day after day. That might work once in a while, but if you do it constantly, you’ll always be scraping the bottom of the barrel. Consider seeking professional support for your mental health. In the meantime, or if you have occasional anxious or low days, try the tips I’ve suggested.