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6 Ways to Protect Your Mental Health at Work

Despite changing norms, it’s still complicated navigating mental health needs at work. Here’s how to cope, according to experts.

By Barbara O'Dair

February 21, 2020


Patti* was working as a hostess in an upscale restaurant in Manhattan when the effects of her erratic mood came to a head. “I was talking and laughing too much, and I couldn’t seem to control it,” she says. “At one point, I helped bus a table and brought a bin of dirty dishes into an area in the dining room that was partly shielded from the customers. I crouched down by the bin, impulsively grabbed a dessert plate that was piled with cake and ice cream, and began shoveling the dessert into my mouth. One of the wait staff came over and looked at me in astonishment. I quickly stood up and walked into an empty back room and started to cry.” 

Patti’s manager found her in tears, and though she was kind and understanding, Patti left the restaurant immediately. “I never set foot in that place again. Not long after, I was diagnosed with bipolar 2, plus a binge-eating disorder. I was relieved to get answers but felt really sorry that I messed up a job I liked.” 

In any given month, about 18% of U.S. workers report having a psychiatric disability, making mental illness one of the most common types of disabilities covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals mental illness and allows for reasonable accommodations in the workplace.  

“One thing to realize is that you’re not so unusual,” says Rebecca Sachs, PhD, ABPP, a clinical psychologist specializing in anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and autism. “A lot of your coworkers are likely living the same reality. It’s just not something we often talk about at work.”

But the prevalence of mental illness didn’t assuage Patti’s fears that she’d be stigmatized or labeled “crazy.” “Maybe I could have returned to work, but I just couldn’t face [my coworkers],” she says. And her fear isn’t without merit. It wasn’t too long ago that mental illness was considered a character flaw or personal failing. And while more and more people with mental illnesses are sharing their stories publicly, studies have shown that stigma remains a barrier to people receiving mental health care

Many workplace environments can also make it difficult to discuss mental illness openly, such as a fast-paced, competitive organization or a small company where everyone knows everyone’s business. “Work culture generally doesn’t allow or accept someone [going] through tough times,” says Liza Mordkovich, a psychotherapist with a private practice in Brooklyn, New York, who focuses on anxiety disorders and postpartum depression in the workplace. 

There are some options, however, for people trying to manage and protect their mental illness at work. Here are six expert-recommended strategies. 


1. Be Kind to Yourself

 “If you were to accidentally break a finger and couldn’t type as fast as usual at work, you wouldn’t blame yourself,” says Mark Edison, Clinical Instructor in Psychiatry and Medicine at Mount Sinai Health System in New York City. “You’d try to compensate for the problem. That’s what I recommend people do at work if they have a flare-up of their mental disorder: be kind to yourself and try to compensate until you feel better.”

2. Take Care of Yourself

Sachs recommends that you employ self-care techniques right away if you feel symptoms of your depression or another mental illness coming on. “Go back to [the] basics,” she says. “Take care of your physical needs. Try to regulate your sleep, getting eight hours on a regular schedule. Make eating a priority, because sometimes people suffering with mental illness forget about food.”

3. Seek Help

Another important step is to seek out professional help, if you haven’t already. Therapy is the first line of defense. Other forms of support include family members, friends, or an in-person or online mental health support group. 

4. Learn to Sit with Anxiety

Mordkovich says a common response to an anxiety attack is a desire to escape. “Meetings can be a trigger,” she says. “You get stuck in a room and can’t leave. It may trigger fight-or-flight instincts, but in reality, you’re still safe,” she says. “If you can’t control whether or not you experience anxiety, learn to live with the feeling.” One way to learn to “live with the feeling” is to practice deep breathing and mindfulness and remind yourself that while panic attacks are scary, they are not dangerous.

5. Create a Plan to Manage Your Symptoms

One of Mordkovich’s patients suffered from ADHD and frequently jumped up inappropriately at work. She and the patient devised a way she could work standing up and created a schedule where she could take short breaks, walk around the office, and even change her scenery for a moment or two. The client was able to manage her workload with these new strategies.

6. Ask Your Therapist or Doctor About Medication

When behavioral methods fail to address your mental illness at work, it might be time to discuss the use of medication with your healthcare provider. Your doctor will be able to recommend a regimen that fits your specific needs, but medicines that are effective for some include beta blockers, stimulants, and serotonin reuptake inhibitors. 

Managing your mental health, whether at or outside of work, isn’t always easy, but treating yourself gently and with acceptance is essential to your own growth and well-being. 

*Names changed to protect the source’s confidentiality. 

If you are struggling with thoughts of self harm, please reach out immedately to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

Written By

Barbara O'Dair

Barbara O'Dair is the founder of O'Dair Content. She has been Editor in Chief of Prevention, Us, and Teen People; held top positions at Rolling Stone, Time Inc. Interactive, More, Harper's Bazaar, Reader's Digest, and Entertainment Weekly; contributed to the New York Times, among many other publications; and published two books.

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