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Dublin: 9 °C Sunday 17 February, 2019
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Struggling to cope with work? Some tips on looking after yourself (and others)

Suicide or Survive CEO Caroline McGuigan offers simple, practical advice on making your workplace a more supportive space.

Caroline McGuigan

WORK HAS ALWAYS been a big part of my life. I left school at 17 and trained as a secretary-administrator. I got my first job as a legal secretary and stayed in that field for 10 years.

Like many others, I left Ireland for London and worked hard there building up my profile. I spent a total of six years in the UK coordinating projects for legal firms and businesses both large and small.

When I eventually came home, I set up a servicing business with a work partner, which resulted in us managing over 30 offices here.

I had purchased a home with my husband, knowing both of us would need to be in employment to pay back the mortgage. Naively, we never thought that one of us would become unwell and need to spend eight years rebuilding their lives.

I had always worked and seen myself as a worker, and now I was faced with a situation where struggling with my mental health meant that going into work became a massive challenge.

The day I had to tell my work partner that I needed to step away from the business was heartbreaking. I went over to his house and had to stand at the back door of his sitting room.

I asked him not to approach me as I was full of anxiety and on the verge of a panic attack. I needed to go home to pack my bag and enter a psychiatric ward, I told him. Can you imagine how humiliating it was to not even be able to step into that room to talk to him?

Taking steps 

I now know that many others struggle to cope with work because of personal difficulties. Mental health has overtaken musculoskeletal difficulties as the most common cause of workplace absence. Research suggests that, at any one moment, around 20% of the working age population in the average OECD country is suffering from a medically diagnosed mental health issue.

Millions of work days are lost every year due to mental health difficulties, so it makes economic sense for employers to invest in employee wellbeing. A happier workforce is a more productive workforce, after all.

While many of us now put effort, energy and resources into purposely looking after our physical health every day, very few of us proactively take care of our mental health in the same way.

With this is mind, here are some simple, practical ways that we can look after our own – and our team’s – wellbeing at work:

1. Mindfulness: Take five to 10 minutes every day to do a team meditation exercise. It improves wellbeing, focus and productivity. It also takes us out of the busyness of work to give our minds a break, which allows us to face our workload with renewed energy.

2. Wellness jar: We have a jar in my own office into which everyone puts their own wellness tips – simple things like “take a minute to breathe and to notice your surroundings”, “play your favourite piece of music”, “have a chat with a friend” or “get some fresh air at lunchtime”.

We each take a tip from the jar every day and commit to putting it into action before the day is over. This is a really simple and effective thing that everyone can take part in.

3. Taking notice: Paying attention to your colleagues and really listening when someone tells you how they are. Take time to notice and compliment those around you – kind words can give a lift to those who are struggling.

4. Gratitude: Never underestimate the value of thanking a colleague. We doubt our ability in work from time to time so being made to feel appreciated can have a big impact.

5. Being open about our struggles: Many of us struggle with our mental health every now and then, but the stigma and the pressures of work can force us to put on a mask that only worsens our difficulties.

If you’re in a position to do so, make every effort to foster a workplace culture where people can be open about their mental health without fearing judgement, and support and encouragement are always on hand.

Today is National Workplace Wellbeing Health Day 2016. At my workplace, we will be walking the lunchtime mile, sharing some nutritious and tasty food, meditating together, implementing our wellness tips from our wellness jar, talking openly about mental health, laughing and working hard.

We are urging everyone in every workplace in Ireland to do the same – not just today but every day. Your mental health is precious, so look after it.

Caroline McGuigan is the CEO of Suicide or Survive, a national charity working to prevent suicide and promote wellness.

SOS offers a range of wellness and suicide prevention programmes for individuals, communities and organisations throughout Ireland. For more information, visit www.suicideorsurvive.ie and www.yourmentalhealth.ie.

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Caroline McGuigan

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