The key to mental health is understanding the early warning signs before they evolve into a more serious problem (Getty Images/damircudic)
Often people can take their mental health for granted. But even the most resilient of people can reach a point where they need to be taking better care of themselves.
The key to positive mental health is understanding the early warning signs before they evolve into a more serious problem, says Eileen Chadnick, principal of Big Cheese Coaching. “It is important to distinguish between needing to pay more attention to your well-being and knowing when you can’t navigate things on your own.”
Denis Trottier, FCPA, chief mental health officer for KPMG in Canada, often uses the rabbit hole analogy in his discussions on mental health. “You are either looking in and it’s scary, or you are barely holding on, or you are in there so deep that it gets harder and harder to climb out. With mental health, the sooner you realize the signs, the easier it is to ask for help.”
KNOWING THE EARLY WARNING SIGNS
Trottier points to the Continuum of Mental Health that provides a brief overview of different stages, from healthy to reacting to injured to ill. It also distinguishes between what can be managed through self-care and social support (healthy, reacting) to behaviours requiring professional care (injured, ill). “It shows all the visible signs to watch for, from normal mood fluctuations to more serious behaviours such as anxiety, aggression, withdrawal and thoughts of self-harm.”
“If you see the signs in the early stages, you can focus more on self-care and promote balance by talking to somebody, exercising or spending time with family and friends,” says Jennifer Bertram, program manager for promotions and training at CMHA Toronto.
Some of the more common early warning signs include irritability, body aches and pains, sleeplessness, reduced impulse control, loss of appetite and feelings of sadness.
“If you’re not as sharp as you were, if your mood is consistently lower than normal or you are not as engaged, you might be suffering from burnout,” says Chadnick. “Ask yourself, is your energy consistently low? Have you lost motivation? Are you not eating? Are you sleeping too much or too little? These are important tangible signals to check in with yourself.”
Work performance can also serve as a gauge, for example when someone is not meeting deadlines, showing up late, is less productive, or calling in sick more often.
For Richa Khanna, CPA, partner at RDK Partners LLP, the burnout signs came unexpectedly. Khanna was always one to excel under pressure, but COVID changed her perceptions on managing her own mental health.
During the early lockdown stages, as a partner in a mid-sized CPA firm, she was juggling multiple leadership roles and managing stressed-out teams, while trying to meet her family’s increased needs. “I went into overdrive, trying to make sure everyone in my sphere of influence was taken care of. Timesheets for the April to June period averaged the 225-hour mark.”
Everything seemed under control until one morning in July when she was unable to get out of bed or go through her basic daily household routines, let alone her work at her computer. “I couldn’t function. I would burst into tears for no apparent reason. I didn’t feel like me.”
One of Khanna’s first steps was to reach out to family locally, and in India and tell them all was not well. “I received a lot of love and support from everyone around me. It helped me get 100 per cent back to work after a few days, although my heart and soul was not in it.”
On a personal front she had sought help from family, but professionally she felt the need to continue projecting confidence for the benefit of the junior team members. A major turning point came when during a routine work call with a team member, she decided to honestly answer the question ‘How are you today?’ with “I said I was feeling awful, not productive, and was only there because work needed to be done and I couldn’t afford to take a day off. His response was, ‘So you’re having the kind of week I’m having.’ That lit something up in me and I realized that as much as my team members want to know that 'all is well', it will not be a sign of weakness to share how I was also struggling.”
Khanna believes that being open allowed more team members to share their challenges and while she couldn’t solve anyone's problems, it helped people realize that they were not alone.
STARTING A SELF-HELP REGIMEN
People often think they need to make bold moves such as running a marathon or quitting their jobs, says Chadnick. “Often it’s the tiny things that can make a massive difference, such as a phone call, committing to getting enough sleep, making social connections during the day, or eating well.”
At work, focus on what you can control and are able to do, she adds. “If you get lost in worry and angst, you can’t deal with what’s coming on the job. Really hone in on what you can do at that moment. It’s amazing how easily that can put your brain at ease.”
“For one person, going for a walk every day might be a priority,” says Bertram. “For others it could be touching base with family or friends. The key is finding which stream provides good mental help and putting that into practice every day. Practising when you are in a good state is a key preventative measure to minimizing a higher crisis situation.”
When crises do happen, it’s important to reach out to the people you trust, she adds. “Turn to loved ones or colleagues for support or look into local organizations and outreach services in your community. If you have safety concerns, go to a hospital for a medical assessment.”
Even though Khanna has made deliberate workplace-related changes, she admits that even today, there are challenging days. But now she has made a point of putting overall health and wellness at the forefront of her work and family life.
“I manage my day and my expectations and am open and honest with my family, colleagues and clients about where I’m at. It’s a deliberate choice, because I understand I need to be well mentally to do everything around me. Now that I realize the signs, I can deal with them automatically, whether it’s spending more time outside in the garden, learning piano or watching my daughter play.”
The biggest lesson for Khanna is to not be afraid to admit you are having a bad day. “Make sure you get up the next day. And if you can’t, that’s fine too. I realize that society and our communities have become more tolerant. But if somebody judges me for having a bad day, that’s on them. The most important thing to tell yourself is that it’s okay to not be okay.”
If you are in need for further support call Talk Suicide Canada at 1-833-456-4566.
MORE ON MENTAL HEALTH
Find out more about common stressors for accountants, and why it’s imperative to look at mental health not just as an HR issue, but a corporate issue. And learn more about Denis Trottier’s mental health journey and how he became an advocate for employee wellness.