Although nearly one in five Americans experience a mental illness annually, the subject remains taboo — especially in the workplace. Many workers may not feel comfortable expressing their mental health struggles, so they continue on with stressful deadlines and high-pressure meetings.
Erika J. Kendrick, author of the mental fitness workbook "Who Moved My Happy," understands not every employee can walk into the HR office and talk frankly about mental health. Instead, she offers practical advice on how to move forward in that reality.
"It's not as simple as waltzing to the CEO, having one conversation, and it's all magically fixed," says Kendrick, who tours nationally about mental health. "It's about establishing a plan that crosses your work and personal life, and committing to that every day."
Here, Kendrick describes how to stay mentally fit, ways to identify stressful triggers, and the four concrete steps to take if work is getting you down.
"Mental fitness is my term for a mental recovery plan. It's like physical fitness: It's a plan to keep healthy habits as part of our daily existence, and it helps pull us out of a bad place if we're headed there. I boiled this plan down to what I call the Incredible 10: mental fitness steps to become happier and healthier, which I detail in my workbook. These include having a dynamic support squad of people; therapy; clean eating; exercise; and meditation. "
"If we don't make these healthy habits a part of our daily lives, the stressors we meet every day – whether it's a fight with your spouse or a work meeting that didn't go well – can eat away at us. Our bodies manifest anxiety and depression in all kinds of ways," says Kendrick.
Here are a few physical, emotional, and mental signs that tell you that you're going to a bad place:
- You've started to isolate yourself from family and friends
- Feeling weighed down: You want to cry, or something just feels "wrong"
- Significant increase or decrease in appetite
- Sleeping way too much and/or fatigue
- Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness
- Inability to concentrate; easily distracted
"Sometimes we try to work through all of this, and it becomes a vicious cycle; you can see why issues like low productivity affect us at the workplace. If the stress is temporary and fades, fine. But if it keeps building up, or if you've been taking off work a lot and that's not like you, it's time to make a change. If you've been feeling a lot of these symptoms for two weeks, it's time to contact a professional."
"And that's why mental fitness is so important. If you want to start small, or you feel you can do only one thing at the beginning, then that's great. I find meditation makes a massive difference when you're feeling overwhelmed and anxious at work. Start with just five minutes in the morning. Let the thoughts flow through your head, allow them to be, and then dismiss them. It's hard at first. But like physical fitness, it gets easier with time, and I'd love to see people work up to 20 minutes of meditation in the morning. I have folks meditate in my workshops, and no matter the demographic of people, the energy just shifts within a minute and a half."
"I know we're all so busy, but these few minutes make a massive difference for your productivity the rest of the day. Meditate right after you get out of the shower. Do it on the train. Do whatever you need to do to focus on you for those few minutes, and I promise you will become a different worker."
"The truth is, not everyone can reach out at work. You can't say to every manager or to every CEO, 'I'm having mental health challenges, I'm stressed, I need time away from work.' Some people and organizations will look down on that, unfortunately."
"If you've figured out that work is your trigger, the first thing is to find a therapist. Even if you feel your workplace would be supportive of you speaking up, finding a place outside of that first is fantastic. With a mental health professional, you'll have a place where you can unload everything that's on your mind, and work out strategies to employ. You can leave feeling validated and armed with strategies, and your job isn't in jeopardy," says Kendrick.
"For so many people, it is. A woman at a startup, [Olark Live Chat], even tweeted recently about how her CEO applauded her decision to take a few sick days to focus on her mental health. But you have to assess whether your manager or your HR is open to this discussion. If so, go for it: Be aware of boundaries, but depending on your comfort level, you can say 'I need to take time for my mental health' rather than detail how you had a panic attack or a bipolar episode."
"If you find that work is not a safe space, you still need to take that time away from work to re-center. You can say you're 'taking a few days to address health challenges,' and you're not lying. You're not isolating yourself from the mission. There's nothing wrong with using the overall health umbrella to explain your time away."
"If this isn't temporary and work is continually a trigger and wearing you down, find another job. I realize that is not easy to do. But when you have realized your biggest trigger is work, whether it's a toxic boss or simply not the right fit for you, that's a huge step in your mental health. Yet once you realize it, you have to do something about it. It's a big step to take, but it is key in moving forward."
"The truth is that we have to put ourselves first. There's that saying derived from the airplane crash instructions, that we need to put our own air masks on first. You've got to take care of you; if you're no good, you won't be good to anyone else," says Kendrick.
She continues, "That's why the love for self needs to be so strong, both for your personal and your work life. Being the best worker sometimes means making the choice to put the iPhone away, in your bag in the other room. It means getting a restful sleep, not answering emails at 3 a.m.
Being in charge of mental fitness needs to be at least as important to you as your work is. We have too many pressures and stressors as soon as we walk through the door to the office, and they'll remain with us when we leave if we don't have a plan in place to stay mentally fit."
Like this story? Like CNBC Make It on Facebook