With layoffs rising and a potential recession looming, far too many workers are feeling the pressure to overperform and accept any project or shift that comes their way—even if it cuts into their nights or weekends. It can be hard to avoid work drama, stay focused on tasks at hand, and prioritize your own needs, but protecting your mental health is a necessity.
Many studies show autonomy, social connectedness, sleep quality, and physical activity have a positive impact on employee well-being and can aid in productivity and work satisfaction. But a negative work environment, combined with the stresses of social media, an endless cycle of bad news, political division, rising interest rates, and other factors can make it hard to block out the negativity and protect your inner peace.
Learn how to set boundaries, recognize the signs of a toxic work environment, and find an employer who understands and respects your need for work-life balance. Life comes with enough stressors—work shouldn’t be one of them.
Read more: Your Guide to Setting Boundaries in the Workplace
4 tips for protecting your inner peace in the workplace
If you’re feeling tired or guarded, avoiding certain people, consistently procrastinating, experiencing loss of motivation, or are no longer passionate or interested in your job, chances are your needs—for safety, balance, acknowledgement, appreciation, community, and inspiration—aren’t being met, says Alison McKleroy, a licensed cognitive behavioral therapist.
Here’s what you can do to help improve your mental health and well-being and protect yourself from a negative work environment.
1. Be honest with yourself about what makes you uncomfortable.
Improving your self-esteem, practicing self-reflection, and knowing who you are at your core are key components to understanding what you don’t want, says licensed clinical psychologist Angela Webb.
2. Improve your communication skills.
When there’s poor communication in the workplace, it can raise stress levels and negatively influence well-being. Even the most minor miscommunication can lead to extra work, frustrated customers, criticism, resentment, and other negative situations. Dr. Webb suggests asking questions and explaining your ideas and plans fully, so that expectations are aligned. Practice resolving conflict calmly and rationally in a manner that is respectful to all involved. Just know you can’t control how others react—you can only control how you react.
3. Pay attention to your needs.
Everyday looks different, but when you’re in touch with your needs or values, it’s easier to figure out how to honor them. McKleroy recommends asking yourself questions, such as:
What will help me be successful?
What do I need at the moment?
Would rest or movement help me?
What actions can I take to meet my needs?
Can I take a walk around the block?
Can I schedule a meeting with my manager?
Do I know what my future at the company looks like?
4. Separate your work and personal life.
Even if work is stressful and you’re on the verge of burnout, there are simple things you can do to create distance from your work environment. Remove work apps—including email—from your phone. Close down every tab at the end of the day and make a list of things you didn’t finish. Skip the after-work events and head home. Block time on your schedule for work projects and personal projects. Take deliberate breaks during your day—take a walk, call a friend, or spend time with your family.
Practice boundary-setting in the workplace
You can set a boundary, but unless you learn to maintain it, others won’t take the boundary seriously. If you want your colleagues to respect your boundaries, you have to make them clear and be willing to protect them, explains Dr. Webb.
If, for instance, you choose to establish a 30-minute lunch break away from your desk, you must consciously ignore requests that come in during that time, even if they seem urgent. You can remind your colleagues that you’re taking lunch, block the time off on your calendar, and set yourself as “away” on Slack or Teams to reinforce this boundary. It can also help to establish a routine so colleagues learn to adjust to it.
Even if you’ve modeled your limits to others and have built healthy boundaries between your work and personal life, you still may find yourself getting caught up in the drama of your colleagues. After all, you’re all in this together, right? Yes, but… you aren’t responsible for other people’s emotions and reactions. Even if everyone on your team is complaining about a work project, you don’t have to contribute. You can choose, instead, to separate yourself from the situation.
“Emotions can be contagious,” says Dr. Webb. “It is one thing to have sympathy and empathy for someone, as this is vital for the human connection, but draw a line for yourself. Don’t let others' negative emotions bring you down or disrupt your work day.”
The best thing you can do is disengage from the work gossip, respect the people around you, maintain your boundaries, and focus on the work itself. If you’re having trouble with this, Dr. Webb recommends evaluating your defense mechanisms, coping styles, personality, and approach to communication. Working with a therapist and practicing deep self-reflection can help address insecurities, build confidence, and avoid maladaptive behaviors, she says.
Learn how to survive (or abandon) a toxic work environment
Do you dread waking up and going to work? Do you feel drained after spending an hour at the office? Do your colleagues feel the same way? If so, you may be dealing with a toxic work environment, in which the negative atmosphere, created by colleagues, managers, or the culture itself, prevents you from succeeding and thriving in the workplace.
Bad days are bound to happen. However, if you’re witnessing tension, high turnover rates, frequent gossip, blaming, boundary-pushing, bullying, sexual harassment, or other unhealthy and unsafe behaviors, then it’s time to reconsider your company’s values, managerial styles, and ability to create cohesiveness on a team, says Dr. Webb.
If you’re in an unhealthy work environment, consider talking to your manager or the human resources department to see if your concerns can be addressed. If not, or if the solution is not met to your satisfaction, then it may be time to consider alternative employment. This can take time, so make sure you monitor your mental health as you job search. If the environment worsens and you feel you must leave to protect your sanity, then start to make preparations, such as setting aside money and planning your resignation.
Read more: 3 Essentials to Practicing Self-Care During Your Job Search
Look for an employer who offers good benefits
Assessing company culture can be challenging. A hiring manager might list off all the great things about the company (mental health benefits, game nights, flexible working hours, unlimited paid time off, etc), but this doesn’t paint the full picture. Managers might require their teams to be available from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. or perhaps they criticize employees who take week-long vacations, even if company policy allows it.
When you're job searching, you want to consider your own personal needs and preferences, what type of manager you prefer, and what non-negotiables you have. Take the company-wide policies, benefits, and incentives into account, but also assess your potential manager, the team you’d be working on, and the people you’d work with most often. These relationships are often the strongest indicators of work satisfaction.
“A supportive employer offers flexibility and makes a good attempt to get to know their employee's unique needs, values, and struggles. Supportive employers should also understand the importance of work-life balance, mental health, and self-care. They should be resourceful, recognize achievements, and support a healthy work culture,” says Dr. Webb.
McKleory recommends asking many questions during your interview. These can include:
How do you model self-care at work?
What is your managerial style?
Is your company aligned with its mission?
Do you have a structure or system for acknowledging people and the work they’re doing?
Do you have a system of regular check-ins?
How much paid time off do your direct reports usually take?
“Employees work best when they feel connected and belong,” says McKleroy. Feeling heard can often go a long way, especially when working in a fast-paced, stressful work environment.
Employers should establish an open communication policy, which allows for two-way conversations and encourages—and even rewards—honest feedback from employees. Even the most successful companies can’t survive without the hard work of its employees, which is why employee mental health and well-being is so vital.