Ask Our Boss: How Do I Protect My Mental Wellbeing at Work?

Alison Rice

This feature is dedicated to our #NoChangeNoFuture initiative. From the Women’s March, to Australia voting yes to same sex marriage, and the #MeToo movement, 2017 taught us to look beyond ourselves and come together as a collective of powerful women who are writing our own history. Join us as we cancel setting one-dimensional personal resolutions this January and commit to being the change we want to see. Because without change, there is no future.


Katie Fergus

Welcome to a new year of Ask Our Boss. I share with pride that I switched off for two whole weeks over Christmas and New Year—it’s only taken me six years to give myself that permission to rest fully. A pretty good lead in to this month’s reader question, which might just be my favourite yet.

How many of you get anxious when you wake up on a weekday? And what about the Sunday Scaries—is your tummy in knots at the thought of another week at your desk? Or there’s meeting anxiety—your boss throws a meeting in your calendar and your heart tightens. I bet the top of your back is sore, you probably get headaches (those weird ones behind your eye or at the base of your skull) and your jaw hurts from clenching your mouth so much. And then on the outside, your jawline might be riddled with painful blind pimples. You are cold but you’re sweating, and the sweat actually smells quite bad.

These are all telltale signs of stress and anxiety. For many of us, our adrenal glands are working overtime and our blood is flooded with too much cortisol—a steroid hormone. Ladies, this is no way to live and it changes this year.

Here’s where I think I went wrong, and maybe you can relate. The moment I let my job define my life was the moment I lost the ability to calm my own body and my own mind. I was so deep in “doing” that I couldn’t see past the task at hand. Every minute of my day was gobbled up by my sense of responsibility and superhuman ambition, and to be honest, I stopped living fully.

You know that saying: “work to live, not live to work”? Yeah, that wasn’t me. I was absolutely living to work. And succeeding, I might add. I killed it every single day, year in, year out. I got the promotions, I launched the things, I was “successful”.

And then someone asked me a question that changed everything: When you’re sitting in your true self, who are you? I didn’t have an answer, but I did have a realisation; while I was busy devoting myself to being busy, I’d failed to develop my sense of self. Our true self is the one that’s left standing there when you strip all the titles and achievements away. She’s your morals. Your ethics. Your character. Your humour. She is what you stand for and who you stand behind.

I tell this story to bring context to the advice I want to give every service-based superhero (read: woman)—about protecting your mental health at work.

Work won’t change. The way your manager communicates with you or gives you feedback probably won’t change (but I live in hope that all bad managers are exposed and held accountable for the short- and long-term damage they do to their staff’s mental health). The expectations put on you in your role won’t change. The overtime, the administration tasks, the office politics. None of these will change.

Write this down somewhere:

“All the things that make me feel anxious or stressed at work are out of my control. What is in my control, is if I let those things impact my mind and my body.”

If you’re under 35, it is likely that your experience in the workplace is one of intense ambition. We are trying hard all the time. Many of us are this way because we want what our mothers didn’t get the opportunity to have—a fulfilling career, and financial freedom. Just a theory of mine, but I think a lot of the time we’re actually doing it for them, not us.  

But here’s where we need to be careful. Don’t let your ambition overtake your life. We are not defined by our roles. We are defined by our morals, our hobbies and interests, our relationships, our knowledge, what we find funny.

And when it comes to work, I think we are defined by our ability to fully access our talent and implement it to bring measurable impact to a business. This has nothing to do with the title we hold (vanity), and nor is it personal.

As ambitious young women, we are often serviced based and we like to please. I think it’s important to stare down these common female characteristics and identify when they are holding us back, and then on the flip-side, when summoned with intention, figure out where they bring us into our power.

The next time you feel offended at work, take a moment to realise you are personalising. And stop that. Remember it’s a business, and it’s every employee’s job to make decisions that benefit the business’ objectives. It isn’t about you.

When you feel overwhelmed or emotional, picture yourself relaxing on a recliner chair in your own mind. Sit back and watch yourself like a movie. By putting that distance between your true self and the situation, you’ll see it for what it truly is. Then: Let. It. Go.

Right now I’m working on how I control and then channel my ambition. I view it as this fast, shiny car that I can drive fast, slow or some days, not at all. How do I put myself, my talent and my time into work that will benefit the business, but also give me an adrenaline high. Not a sweaty adrenaline low.

So, if you’ve come into the new year and everything feels like a lot, all the time, I hope this advice helps you see past your role and deeper into yourself. No one else is in control of your mental wellbeing, only you.   

Inspired? Write down your thoughts in this stylish Smythson Textured-Leather Notebook ($78).

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