Over the past two and a half years, I have given more than 360 virtual and in-person talks, workshops, and seminars on emotional fitness, wellness, and burnout prevention. I’ve had the privilege of working with people from every kind of industry, including doctors on the Covid frontlines, employees of large and small companies, and nonprofit professionals. And I have the gift of staying connected with many of them to learn what emotional health behaviors have a positive impact on their well-being.
And here’s my big learning: When it comes to improving well-being at work, the little things can make a big difference if you do them consistently.
To be clear: Employee well-being is an organizational issue, not just an individual one. Many factors affect and influence this, including your workload and flexibility, your manager, and the culture within your team.
But even if you don’t have the ability to change your organization or your employer, there are some simple, science-backed things you can do every day to improve your emotional health and well-being.
I define emotional health as the ability to create a more supportive relationship with yourself, your thoughts and emotions, and other people. When you improve your physical fitness, you improve your ability to handle physical challenges. When you improve your emotional health, you improve your ability to handle emotional challenges with less struggle, stress, and overwhelm.
Here are six simple but surprisingly powerful emotional health practices to help you better manage stress and improve your health:
Check yourself every day.
Ask yourself: How am I doing today? What do I feel? Don’t judge your responses or immediately try to “fix” your feelings. Just be aware.
I shared this practice during a recent keynote and a young woman approached me afterward to say she had heard me mention it before.
“At the time, I felt really burned out,” he told me. “I wasn’t sure it would make a difference, but I decided to try this daily check-in. I was surprised because it really helped me feel better. Instead of being consumed by my feelings of stress or overwhelm, I became aware of it and now feel more in control.”
Research supports her experience: People who practice emotional awareness are more likely to report better well-being. Being aware of your difficult feelings reduces the intensity with which you experience them and gives you the opportunity to do something to support yourself to feel better.
Take a few short, quality breaks during the day.
The key word here is “quality.” It means doing something that helps you disconnect from work, refuel, and recharge. Scrolling through social media or reading the news is not a quality break, and neither is getting to your to-do list.
The human brain needs to rest every 90 to 120 minutes to function optimally and avoid accumulated stress and overwhelm. Microsoft recently held a large-scale study and found that take five to 10 minute breaks between meetings significantly reducing accumulated stress and strain and improving focus.
My favorite way to disconnect from work during the day is to go for a walk outside. As shown by mountains of research, it will lift your mood, improves focus and motivationand has many health benefits if you do it regularly.
Practice acceptance to focus on what you can control.
Acceptance involves two steps: First, acknowledge the situation with clarity, focusing on the facts you know to be true. Second, identify one step you can take to move forward without stress and struggle.
We often underestimate how much thinking about stressful situations drains our energy. Practicing these two steps of acceptance when you find yourself caught in a loop of negative thoughts will help you focus your attention on what you can control and take a productive action, even how small it small victory gives your brain a sense of progress, which feels good and often encourages you to find other useful steps you can take.
One of the women who participated in my leadership program where we learned the skill of acceptance told me recently that this is her key skill in times of ongoing challenges and uncertainty at work. “Whenever I get stressed out about work situations, the economy, or things with my team, I stop, take a breath, and ask myself what step I can take to continue what is things and what’s in my control. Asking this question as a team also helped focus our team and stress levels,” he told me.
Prioritize micro-moments of connection with partners.
Make it a point to greet your colleagues with genuine enthusiasm when you are on a call or when you see them for the first time throughout the day. In virtual meetings, where there is a tendency to dive into the agenda, start by asking everyone to share something good from their week so far. Be intentional about contacting a colleague to check in, without focusing your conversation on work.
We are all hungry for human connection after years of isolation during the pandemic and it has negatively affected our well-being. As humans, we are wired to connect, and study shows that social support and feeling connected can improve mental health and reduce stress and anxiety.
So, take the initiative and create a daily connection moment with a partner. It doesn’t take much effort or time, but you’ll feel uplifted and help someone else feel less alone.
Practice gratitude to counteract the negative bias in your brain.
If you don’t have one, create a daily gratitude practice, which can be as simple as writing down three things you’re grateful for each morning or evening.
Cultivating a grateful mindset is always beneficial to your well-being, but even more so in these uncertain times. Uncertainty is extremely stressful and energy-draining — it’s the hardest thing for the human brain to handle. When your brain encounters uncertainty, it focuses on finding possible danger and enters the “fight or flight state” so it can protect you. This can lead to increased anxiety and thinking about negative outcomes and worst case scenarios.
By practicing gratitude, you are asking your brain to widen its lens and focus its attention on things that are positive, meaningful, or comforting. The goal is not to deny the difficulties you face, but to remind yourself that this is not the whole of your life. It will boost your emotional strength and help develop your resilience, which is your ability to adapt positively in the midst of challenges.
Practice active rest outside of work.
Finally, it’s important to spend time outside of work doing things you love. Spend time on your favorite pastime. Spend time reading or gardening. Try a new creative activity, such as watercolor or writing. The key is to do something that actively boosts your energy and feeds parts of you outside of your own work. (Conversely, zoning out in front of Netflix for hours isn’t active rest, although watching an episode of your favorite show every now and then is a good option.)
I chose painting after my own burnout, and there is something that allows me to completely disconnect from work and feed the creative / artist side of myself which is a great gift for my benefit. A recent study of burnout in nurses supports what I find true in my experience: Nurses who spend time actively resting when they are not working, by participating in hobbies or spending time with friends or family , burn out less than nurses who accidentally disconnect from work after finishing their shift.
. . .
As the cliche says: “You are not your job.” However, and perhaps especially, if you like your job, you should be intentional about doing things you like outside of work. If your brain is thinking about productivity, remind yourself that active rest is an investment in your ability to bring your full capacity to your work for a long time.