As 2022 comes to a close, we look back on a year of instability and uncertainty. The remote working debate, the Great Resignation, quiet quitting, productivity paranoia and boomerang employees were just a part of the unstable workplace. Top that off with inflation and economic fears of a recession, there is sure to be a spillover into 2023. Another thing we know for sure is that the stress of heightened workplace insecurities and uncertainties dampens mental clarity and truncates employee engagement, productivity and the company’s bottom line.
A poll conducted by the American Psychological Association suggests that Americans are in “survival mode” due to reports of high stress levels caused by inflation, pandemic recovery and the war in Ukraine. Given these stressors, it’s crucial that companies reflect on employee support and stress management at work. Managing this overwhelming feeling of recession uncertainty along with day-to-day tasks can lead to difficulty concentrating and mental fogginess—even burnout.
Work Stress Dampens Mental Clarity
“Crisis situations create massive amounts of stress and high levels of pressure,” according to Bryan Adams, CEO and founder of Ph.Creative. “These situations can also double an already exhausting workload by adding crisis management on top of the requirements of a daytime job.” Research shows that crisis work situations (such as an abusive boss, sexual harassment, a bully coworker, fear of reprimands from management or a work culture that thrives on crisis, chaos and pressure) can cause structural changes in brain circuitry such as atrophy of the brain mass and decreased brain weight that lead to long-term harm on the nervous system.
Prolonged cortisol levels that accompany chronic stress also damage the brain’s hippocampus, creating loss of long-term memory and harm the brain’s prefrontal cortex necessary for focused attention and executive functioning. Other changes include increases in anxiety, mood disorders and decreases in cognitive flexibility. Studies also show that chronic stress can even raise the risk of degenerative brain diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. In a healthy brain and in the short term, these changes are reversible, but over the long haul brain damage can persist.
How To Sustain Mental Clarity During The Workday
Dr. Christopher Taylor, author of My Digital Practice and founder of Taylor Counseling Group offers eight tips on how you can develop a positive attitude and a clearer mind at work:
- Develop a routine. Never underestimate the power of a good routine—one with small positive habits that can lead to big changes over time and contribute to a healthy and happy life. For example, wake up 30 minutes earlier to get a head start and eliminate some morning stress. Take microbreaks throughout the workday and get outside in nature for a few minutes. Use sticky notes around your desk for affirmations or reminders, such as “Remember to breathe” or “Remember to unclench your jaw, shoulders, and fists.”
- Establish boundaries. One of the most challenging obstacles the work-from-home trend has created is the blurred line between work and home life. Working professionals must develop firm boundaries indicating when work time starts and ends. In order to foster a productive work environment, create a designated workspace in your home where you can focus. As soon as work is over, leave your workspace behind and find a place of leisure or relaxation.
- Practice self-care. As humans, we often forget to nurture our own mental, emotional and physical health. Build mindfulness meditation into your day. Try to adopt a healthy sleep schedule, eat nutritious food and healthy snacks throughout the workday, hydrate, write in a journal and maintain a good support network. Don’t forget to make time for your favorite hobbies and activities that bring you joy.
- Exercise. There’s an undeniable link between physical activity and emotional health. Even if you don’t have a regular exercise routine, you can incorporate some level of physical fitness into your life such as stretching at your desk. Exercise is an antidepressant and improves your motivation and energy. You might choose to go for a daily walk, hike through a local state park or stroll through a botanical garden.
- Use deep breathing exercises. Deep breathing can help to alleviate anxiety. When you become anxious, your body has a stress response that results in symptoms like short, shallow breaths, muscle tension and increased heart rate. By taking slow, deep breaths, you can increase your brain’s oxygen supply, which allows your nervous system to send more calming signals throughout your body. It is difficult, if not impossible, to feel emotionally relaxed if your body is stuck in a state of stress, so deep breathing is a great place to start when you get anxious.
- Practice gratitude. When attention is focused on gratitude, you find that what you’re grateful for will grow. Place a pad of paper and pen by your bed every night—you can also use the grateful app on your phone. When you wake up, write down three things you’re thankful for before beginning your day.
- Turn your energy toward something positive. Donate to a cause, march for an organization or gather with friends to promote something you care about.
- Find a great therapist. Seek out a therapist who offers personalized care. Look for someone who makes you feel comfortable, safe and supported in a non-judgmental environment.
A Final Word
In addition to the eight tips, it’s important to be vigilant of your frame of mind that can obscure mental work clarity. Work stress often snares us in extreme points of view, and we don’t realize it. When we use words like always, all, everybody, nobody, never, none, it’s a cue that “all or nothing” stress declarations have hijacked us, blinding us to limitless possibilities. Clear-mindedness doesn’t come gift-wrapped in black-and-white. It’s nested in the shades of gray—that dot somewhere between the extremes, also known as the middle way. “I have to be perfect at my job (all) or I won’t do it at all” (none) becomes “I can be good at my job and still take risks and learn from mistakes.” keeping your antenna up, helps you recognize when you’re snared, giving you the awareness to meet yourself in the middle and heighten your engagement, performance and productivity.