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How to Put Your Mental Health Above Your Career — and How to Walk Away When You Can’t

“If your work isn’t your love, you’re killing yourself.”

When I first heard this strong conviction while gathering stories for my book, it took me by surprise. This came from a young slack-rock musician in Hawaii named Makana. He insists that our work must be our dharma — our life’s purpose; he teaches this in a young-adult course. Makana first performed at age eleven and has eked a living all his life from his guitar and his voice, serving as his own publicity, social media and business manager. He speaks openly about his bipolar brain difference that’s shattered relationships and exhausted him emotionally, yet he’s turned around to learn from it — to gain inspiration and write songs amid the storms of heartbreak and joy. He balances his career and mental health by honoring his mind through his work — not the other way around.

We spend more hours working than anything else in life, except sleeping. Very, very few humans have a choice: We need that paycheck. We need to provide a better life for our loved ones.

But whether you’re a caregiver or a CEO, no job is worth losing your sanity. So, how can you find out if your mental health is hurting your ability to do your job, or if your job is the reason you’re hurting?

Consider Your Mental Health While You’re on the Job Hunt

For some, the dislike of their job starts the moment they sign their contract. It may not be a job in their field, or what they’re passionate about, but they took the offer because it paid the bills. My sister tried this after she’d recently divorced. Desperate to support her young children as a single mother, she accepted a fat paycheck in what she later called a “soulless” tech firm. She lost much of her hair and a lot of weight. Stress took an enormous toll on her, and she nearly lost sight of her purpose… Later, she traded that job for one that employed her values of environmental sustainability — and it wasn’t long before she rose to senior management, got married and bought a home. She was able to give her children the best of everything; especially, a calm and fulfilled role model.

Don’t apply to places whose people or products don’t align with your internal sense of self. Take extra time when job searching to build up your resume, take online classes or do extra research about the field you’re passionate about. Sometimes, getting out of (or even getting fired from) a draining job can lead you to a much more beneficial situation.

Take A Few Days Off to Recharge and Reflect

Mental health days” are needed in any line of work. It’s a day to turn off the emails, put down the to-do lists, stop the housework or errands that you usually would do on a personal day and really focus on you. Do activities that make you feel calm and in control: meditating, taking a walk, watching your favorite shows, catching up on sleep. You may find that one or two days off is all you needed to let go of built-up stress and anxiety.

However, if you’re already anxious about what’s waiting for you once you get back into the office, your day off might also be a time to sit down and figure out if you’re mental health is in jeopardy because of this job. Talk with a loved one, or make a list, about what would be at risk if you stay or leave this job, and consider what the next steps would be if you chose to move on from it.

Speak Up

You may not be the only one whose mental health is taking a hit because of your workplace structure and environment. All workplaces should value people more than profits. If you feel as if your bosses don’t, find a way to speak with higher management in a respectable manner about the need to create a safe space where employees’ wellbeing is taken into consideration.

It’s also important to ask yourself if work is the only place where you’re feeling mentally drained or unstable. In-house improvements to a work-life balance or leaving your job is not always the cure to mental health issues. If you are still struggling with feelings of depression and anxiety, reach out for help by talking to your doctor or finding a therapist or counselor. There’s more strength in admitting you need help than pretending that you don’t.

Sandra, a midwife in Guatemala who is also featured in my book, worked valiantly to empower other women through access to reproductive healthcare, but she had a secret at home that was crushing her heart. Eventually, she couldn’t hide it anymore when she came to work with bruises on her face and arms. She realized she had to get her son and herself out of an abusive partnership in order to be a true role model to her patients… Sandra now manages her clinic and feels proud that she broke a pattern of domestic violence deeply rooted since her childhood.

Bring Meaning to Where You Have To Be

Millions of humans don’t have a choice in work: They’re like Muhammad, who pedals a bicycle rickshaw in Bangladesh every day just to eat, or Mary, who tills a small banana farm because there are no other jobs in rural Uganda. You just have to do what is in front of you. The way to stay mentally healthy, and even to thrive — from what I’ve observed in hundreds of interviews with workers — is to set your sights above your actual labor to what it’s doing for the world. Muhammad will never be the banker he dreamed of being as a boy, but his long work hours have enabled his children to attend school and even college: One son plans to be a dentist; another daughter a doctor. Mary extended what she learned through crop diseases and diversification, increased production and fair prices, and now teaches classes to her neighbor farmers and dreams of a world without hunger.

As I learned from Makana, a comfortable living does not always make for a content life. We all can learn from this wise man, and make our offices a space for clarity, content and appreciation. But in order to do so, you must appreciate, care for and love yourself.

Suzanne Skees serves as founder/board chair of the Skees Family Foundation, which supports innovative self-help programs in the U.S. and developing countries in education and job creation. Her latest book, MY JOB, Book 2, More People at Work Around the World, has just published in March and is available on Amazon.

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