Uxshely Chotai at mental health specialist byrne dean discusses how helping employees become empowered and improving their feelings of self-control can pay dividends in terms of mental health.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” ― Viktor E. Frankl

Out of control work days and their impact on mental health

We’ve all had days where we feel out of control…. most of us have encountered scenarios like these:

  • You just don’t seem to be able to stop the endless stream of emails coming into your inbox – before you have had a chance to even deal with one of them, two more appear – fighting for your time and attention.
  • You have had no work to do all day and are getting pretty bored, then just as it gets to 5pm and you are getting ready to leave, an emailed marked URGENT pops up in your inbox. Yes – you are going to have to stay in the office late again – you need to get this done by tomorrow morning.
  • You have spent the past hour planning how to get through your giant to-do list for the day but then have one colleague after another come to see you asking for your help – pushing that to-do-list completely aside…and forcing you to fall further behind.
  • After a tough week of long days at work, you have planned a weekend away with your partner or some close friends, only to get a call from your boss on Friday asking you to help out with something over the weekend.

One of biggest things that affects people’s mental health in the workplace is the feeling of having no control over their workflow and workload.

Having too much work, too little time and then dealing with unpredictability is a recipe for poor mental health. With emails flying into their inbox 24/7, long working days, interruptions throughout the day and nobody to turn to for help, employees often feel as though they have no power to plan their day or their lives, and this can be incredibly overwhelming.


How line managers can help employees regain control

So, what can be done to help employees re-gain control over their professional lives?

There are several steps that employers can take to help their employees to feel more in control of their work-flow and professional lives more generally, including:

Good Work Allocation Practices

Managers should Establish a work-allocation system that is fair and looks at what work everyone in a team is doing. This enables you to ensure that work is distributed evenly.  Being transparent about how work is allocated will ensure that nobody in the workforce feels as though they are contributing more than their fair share.

Regular employee monitoring

It is helpful for managers to check in regularly with employees to discuss whether their workload is appropriate. Ensuring that employees are comfortable with the amount of work they have and are able to cope, is a key way to prevent mental health conditions from arising – and also creates a supportive culture by encouraging employees to ask for help or support if they are feeling overwhelmed by their workload.

Consider whether ‘urgent’ demands are truly urgent

Where a partner/director or someone senior is managing the client’s expectations, start thinking about whether something really is URGENT and whether it really needs to be completed that evening or ‘within 2 days’. Whilst having a culture of fast delivery is great, rushing can create it’s own problems.  An organisation will often get much better work product if they give their team more time to do the work well (rather than asking them to rush and complete it late in the evening or over a weekend).

Help employees to appreciate career progress potential

An individual is likely to be much better able to cope with the demands of a stressful job and a lack of control if they feel appreciated and know that they are going to progress in the company (whether through financial incentives, changes in titles or otherwise). Knowing that their hard work has a purpose and that they are working towards a goal, can help an employee to feel better able to manage stressful times.


The skills employees can cultivate to help themselves regain control

It isn’t all down to the employer, however employers can encourage employees to develop skills and understandings that enable employees to re-gain control over their professional lives:

Employees cannot manage their own workflow, but they can manage their thoughts, reactions and responses

Whilst an employee may not be in control of their workflow or the situation in their office, it is empowering for them to realise that they are however always in control of their thoughts and emotions. This skill enables them to respond more healthily to their boss giving them more work or a new deadline.  Changing the thought process from thinking ‘How am I ever going to get this done’, then worrying and getting stressed, they could change their thought pattern to ‘I will try and do my best with this but may not get it all done’, then calmly try to do as much as they can and not feel bad if they cannot meet an unreasonable deadline. Whilst it may seem difficult to change thought patterns – with some awareness of what thoughts are triggering a stress response, it is possible to encourage thoughts which are likely to be more helpful and better for mood/health.

Discourage high flyers from placing over-expectations on themselves

Often pressure to be perfect comes from within – and lowering our own expectations can make a huge difference to mental wellbeing.  Very often feeling the need to get something done quickly or dealing with all of the work they have to do that day on time, is a self-imposed deadline. Chances are, an employee would not get in trouble or fired if they were slightly late in meeting a deadline or replying to an email.  Ironically, most employers would prefer their workforce responded slightly less quickly but stopped taking off lots of days off sick for stress/anxiety/depression. It’s important for managers to encourage employees who seem frequently stressed to ask themselves how much of the pressure they are experiencing is self-imposed because they want to do a good job.  Desire to excel is great, however this should not come at the detriment of their mental or physical health.

Encourage employees to say ‘no’ if they need to

An employee can start to feel comfortable saying “no” and asking for help. Very often when an employee is stressed it can be easy to lose sight of the help available. Employees also often feel uncomfortable turning down work, despite already having too much to do. If employees remember that their employer would probably much prefer them turning down one piece of work or asking for help rather than ending up chronically stressed and sick – maybe they would be more likely to get the help and support they need or not feel bad when they have to say that they can’t take on any additional work.

What is ‘control’, anyway?

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” –  Viktor E. Frankl

The irony is that the inner battle for control which often contributes to anxiety and depression is often an illusion.  In reality, we never really have any control over anything external to us, and our lives are constantly changing.

Often the difference between mental wellbeing and mental ill health is the understanding that while we have no control over our workloads or when that email will appear in our inbox, we all have total control over our own thoughts, actions and emotions.

It therefore not only benefits employees, but also business leaders to accept that we never really have control of anything external – but we can always change our thoughts and responses.  Learning therefore that you always have control over how you respond to a particular situation, is a truly empowering thing – for business leaders and their most motivated staff.


About the author

Uxshely works in the mental health awareness training team at byrne dean, after a successful career in finance law.

Having experienced first-hand, the fast-paced and demanding corporate environment, Uxshely is committed to ensuring that employees are provided with the tools and support network they need to thrive. She has seen that both employees and employers can greatly benefit from making health and well-being a priority.

After graduating with a first from Oxford University in Law and French Law she has continued her education in a range of disciplines which now enable her to help others to improve their mental and physical health. The qualifications she has undertaken include a masters in nutrition for public health, training to become a psychotherapist and hypnotherapist, meditation teacher training, a biomedicine diploma and training in neuro-linguistic programming.

Uxshely is passionate about encouraging kinder, fairer and more productive workplaces by enabling employees to achieve optimum mental and physical health.