May is mental health awareness month. One in five people will be affected by mental illness over the course of their lifetime. And some of you reading this piece have struggled with anxiety and/or depression in the workplace. Addressing the stigma of mental illness is important, and mental health awareness month is the perfect time to do it.
The so-called Royal Fab Four (William, Kate, Harry and Meghan) took advantage of this month to launch a mental health service to those suffering, using texting as a modality to offer free help. Princes William and Harry have been open about their own mental struggles over the death of their mother, Princess Diana. I’m not a royal, and I don’t have the funds to offer a worldwide service, but in hopes of eliminating the stigma of mental illness, I would like to do my small part by sharing my own work struggles and how I overcame them.
After years of defining myself by my accomplishments and allowing my career to consume me, the flying buttress of work ceased to prop me up, and I fell apart. Mentally exhausted and spiritually dead, I slumped in my airplane seat. When the flight attendant asked if I needed anything, I waved her away. I had lost so much weight I looked like a refugee from Dachau. During liftoff, I didn’t care if the plane crashed. Nothing mattered. At the lowest point in my life, I had booked a sunny week in Jamaica to escape the pain of emotional stress and burnout. When you live mainly in the external world like I did—immersing yourself into your career, ignoring your inner Self—you’re bound to hit a bottom at some point. I call this “mindless working.” At my lowest point, I got help, stumbled into yoga and meditation and started my own mindful practices. I began the climb out of the work fog into a saner life. Today when I work, I’m constantly attuned to what’s going on inside me as I pace myself in the present moment throughout the workday. Without an internal compass, you rely on outer conditions to fix an internal feeling, and your spirits die. Could you be one of the spiritually dead in desperate search of an outside cure for your mental health work woes?
Mindless Working: The Real American Idol
In a society based on mindless working, my old unhealthy work habits had plenty of camouflage. Flextime, 24-hour Walmart’s, smartphones and Wi-Fi have vaporized the line that once kept the office from engulfing the sacred hours of Shabbat, Sunday and the family dinnertime. In a rapidly changing, turbulent world you, too, might be struggling to hold that line between calm and frantic work activity. The fast-paced, clever work gadgets infiltrate personal time, and a technologically driven work culture has spun our lives into a blur of constant doing and eclipsed our ability to be. According to Harvard researchers, if you’re like the average person, you’re lost in thought 47% of the time. And multitasking keeps you stuck there.
If you’re a mindless worker, you face the risk of losing touch with yourself, the present moment and the people around you. You see work as a haven in a dangerous, emotionally unpredictable world. You’re on automatic pilot and allow work tasks to engulf you, eclipsing other quarters of life. Commitments to self-care, spiritual life, family responsibilities, friends, partners and children are frequently made and broken to meet work pressures. Chances are, you seek an emotional and neurophysiological payoff from frantic working and get an adrenaline rush from meeting impossible deadlines. You’re preoccupied with work even when walking hand-in-hand at the seashore, playing catch with a child or fishing with a friend. Any kind of inner awareness is little more than a vague, if pleasant, backdrop. Work is the central connection of your life—the place where “life” really takes place, the secret repository of drama and emotion, as compelling as the one addicts experience with booze or cocaine.
Mindful Working And Your Mental Health
The practice of mindfulness brings about change from the inside out—not outside in—regardless of workplace circumstances or the nature of job problems. I call this simple solution to the mental health problems facing the American workforce mindful working—the intentional, moment-to-moment awareness of what’s happening inside you and immediately around you with self-attuned compassion as you move through daily work schedules and routines. It involves bringing your full non-judgmental attention to body sensations, thoughts and feelings that arise while working or thinking about your job. Instead of attacking yourself when things fall apart, a mindful, self-compassionate attunement eases you through work stress and burnout, business failures, job loss or worry and anxiety about career goals.