No matter where you work or what you do, stress is inevitable in any type of job. In fact, it seems that workplace pressure is at its all-time high—in May, the World Health Organization classified burn-out as an occupational phenomenon. WHO defined the term as "characterized by three dimensions: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and reduced professional efficacy."
While you might not be at that level in your current workplace, uncontrolled stress can take a toll on your mental and physical health. It can contribute to depression, obesity, and heart disease, and result in anxiety, insomnia, high blood pressure, and a weakened immune system. Bleak, right?
Photo:Lucy Valdes/Getty Images
And if that's not all, when you're a woman in the workplace, you know that there can be a whole lot of other factors at play that can contribute to stress and your mental well-being, thanks to gender inequality. Some of the struggles many women face at work include lower salaries, fewer opportunities and promotions, and, you know, just everyday sexism, whether it's a passing remark or a meeting where you can't get a word in. And if you're a woman of color, and/or LGBTQ+, it's even harder.
While all of this isn't the most comforting of topics, there are things you can do to care for your own mental health when it comes to work. One thing that can help is having a good friend at the office, otherwise known as a "work wife." I've had many work wives in my all jobs, and let me tell you, they've all been integral to my career path (and just my life in general if I'm being honest). Not only have they become some of my best friends outside of the office, but they have also provided me with such valuable career advice and emotional support. It just feels really nice to vent to a colleague because they understand the situation more than a significant other, friend, or family member would—having to explain who my boss's boss's boss is or the intricacies of a big project to my mom or best friend takes so much more energy.
Photo:Hero Images/Getty Images
There's some research behind the benefits of having a work wife, too: A 2015 study found that people who had work spouses were happier, found work more enjoyable, and felt more inclined to stay at their companies. Participants also reported that having that kind of support made them more productive and improved their work.
How else can you look out for your mental health in the workplace? We asked two therapists to share how we can check on ourselves at work, and how we can support our work wives, too—because it's all about uplifting ourselves and others, right?
Foster a Supportive Environment
While you might not be able to make company- or department-wide changes, you can try to create a supportive environment with and for those around you. If you're a manager, that means touching base with your direct reports more often. If you're not, you can do something so simple as reaching out to colleagues more.
"The normalization of supporting mental health in the workplace is so important. How we feel and what we are experiencing in our lives impacts how we show up at work, so trying to ignore life outside of work is silly and ineffective," says Madeleine DiLeonardo, MEd, LPC, NCC, a licensed professional counselor and founder of Mind Body and Soul by DiLeonardo Wellness. "Providing space for the processing of emotions both about work and about things happening in life outside of work allows for people to feel supported overall. Some ways to do this are scheduling a few minutes during a one-on-one meeting to check in about life and family, or fostering an environment where people can feel open to discuss how they are feeling at lunch or in small groups."
Check In With Yourself
A lot of us have had those days where we've been so busy we realize at 6 p.m. that we've forgotten to eat lunch. It's so easy to get caught up in workplace stress and demands, but a simple check-in can help. "By taking a moment to check in, you can increase awareness of how you're feeling emotionally and then determine what you might need to succeed as you continue your day," DiLeonardo says. "Additionally, for people that work in a traditional office setting, a body scan, meaning mentally scanning your body from your head to your toes, can help to increase awareness of where you are carrying stress. After identifying where stress is manifesting in your body, deep breathing and the releasing of that physical tension several times per day can help."
Ohio-based licensed professional clinical counselor and Talkspace provider Rachel O'Neill, Ph.D., suggests this method: "I'm a big fan of two-minute mindfulness breaks. Every few hours (it can be helpful to set a reminder on your phone), just take a couple of minutes to check in with what you're feeling and really listen to your body. Oftentimes, our body is the first indicator that we might be experiencing an emotional reaction. Are you clenching your fists? Are you experiencing tightness in your chest? Do you have a headache? These physical signs can all be indicators that you're experiencing some emotional distress."
Photo:10'000 Hours/Getty Images
If you have a work wife who supports you, it's important to return the favor, too. This can especially be helpful in a workplace situation that might be toxic or sexist—there's strength in numbers. "Amplifying is a great technique that allows for supporting your female colleagues," DiLeonardo says. "Here's how it works: If you notice a female colleague being cut off or invalidated, you repeat her idea, reflect upon why you think it's a valuable one, and clearly cite her as the source. Supporting each other in being heard and echoing each other's thoughts can be very helpful. Additionally, being authentic yourself about what you're experiencing and things you are managing allows for others to do the same and for you to support each other."
Listen and Provide Validation
Sometimes just plain-old listening can really help your female colleagues—and they might be inclined to do the same when you're in need. "Listen and validate their experience, even if it might not be the same as your own experience. Being a woman in the workplace can bring with it all sorts of struggles, and, of course, not every woman experiences the same exact struggles. When a colleague shares their experience, really listen and hear what they are saying. Ask them how you can help and what they need from you," O'Neill suggests.
Look for Warning Signs
Photo:Layla Bird/Getty Images
Those around you might be struggling, but you might be so busy or consumed with other things to notice. You can provide emotional support to your work wife by just paying attention to your interactions with them. "Be aware of signs that your colleague might be stressed. For example, have they been short with you? Frustrated? Irritable? Do you notice that they don't seem to quite be themselves?" O'Neill says. "Pointing out, in a gentle way, that you've noticed a change in their mood can be a helpful starting point to beginning a conversation with them."
Deal With Cliques
Cliques are also an unavoidable part of the office experience. They can be frustrating and stressful not just on a social level, but on a professional level, too. O'Neill suggests acceptance to deal with cliques. "I encourage folks to practice some acceptance around this situation. Instead of focusing on how awful or annoying it is to feel left out, accept that the clique has led to you feel uncomfortable but you can tolerate that discomfort without fighting against it. Remind yourself of other relationships in your life where you feel validated and supportive," she says.
Of course, if it seems to be getting out of hand—like it's creating an unfair situation—it might be beneficial to talk to your manager or human resources department. And if you find yourself in a clique, or the leader of one, self-awareness is key. Recognize that you might be excluding people and make an effort to include others, or try to avoid being too exclusive.
Come Up With a Plan
If you're in a toxic or extremely stressful work environment, taking action will help the situation—though, of course, the type of action depends on your specific workplace and restrictions. "Come up with a plan. Figure out what you're capable of doing and what you're not and focus on effecting change in whatever way you can. Maybe that's coordinating some after-work debriefing with your co-workers to talk about the stress that you're experiencing, or perhaps it's a more formalized plan that includes a visit to your human resources department," O'Neill says.
If things get really bad, it might be worth looking into a new job or company if you're able to. "If someone is consistently experiencing hostile and uncomfortable work situations that negatively impact mental health and overall well-being, it may be time to consider a change," DiLeonardo says. "I'm aware that the option to change jobs is a privilege that not everyone has, so that's important to keep in mind, but we don't want our work environment to negatively impact our lives."