Although men are slowly becoming more receptive to the idea of seeking help for mental health problems (e.g. stress, anxiety, depression and trauma), they still tend to try and handle things on their own. Even when they feel overwhelmed by pressures at home and work, they often think they should keep a stiff upper lip and carry on. The tendency to stay strong and appear to have everything under control while struggling internally is not good for men’s mental health.
This pattern of staying strong in the face of adversity, though often admired in our culture, can lead to burnout. It is especially prevelant in today’s fast-paced society where both men and women are expected to “do it all”—juggling busy schedules to get ahead at work while also taking care of a family and other responsibilities.
Increasing the likelihood of burnout is the fact that in today’s digital world, people stay connected to work beyond office hours—typically checking on work-related projects and communications via smartphones 24/7, even on weekends, holidays and sick days when they should be enjoying some down time to rest and decompress. According to a 2013 “Stress in America” survey from the American Psychiatric Association (APA) on the impact of work-related communication technology, 25% to 32% of employees aged 18 to 34 reported that work-related communication technology forced them to work faster and negatively affected their relationships outside of work.
Healthy Strategies for Stress Relief Are Critical to Mental Well-Being
Men (and women) who feel overwhelmed, don’t allow themselves time to rest, or don’t have a healthy and consistent outlet for stress relief, can become anxious and depressed. Or they can even develop problems like alcohol and drug dependency if they start using substances as coping tools.
One way to avoid burnout and falling into the trap of addictive substances to meet daily challenges is to explore healthier ways to ease some pressure. While it can be difficult to strike a good balance between work demands and our personal lives, doing so really is critical to maintaining good mental health—something more men need to accept.
5 Tips for Achieving a Better Work-Life Balance
How can men ease their foot off the throttle and avoid burnout? Here are a few tips for achieving and maintaining the delicate work-life balance that is necessary for health and happiness.
1. Establish Work-Life Boundaries.
Just as it isn’t considered appropriate to let your personal life spill over into your work life, it really isn’t healthy or appropriate to let your work spill over into your home life. If you are driven and feel that the success of your career or business depends on your constant presence or input, take a step back and try to look at the big picture. Do you really need to be involved with work every minute of every day? Will things fall apart if you are away for 42 hours or don’t respond to that business email until Monday? In most cases, no. It is crucial to your mental health to be able to separate your work time from your personal time. Once you leave the office (even if it is a home office) for the day, don’t allow work stuff to infringe on your personal life. Establish work-life boundaries with others by making it clear to colleagues that you are unavailable for work calls after certain hours or during certain times.
Whether you are spending non-work hours hitting the gym or hanging out with friends and family, that shouldn’t matter—it is your personal time to get yourself back in balance. If an email or text from work comes in during that time, resist the urge to respond. This will help you establish a work-life boundary for yourself that you will not cross—it must become your policy that during personal hours, you are not available for business communications. Placing this boundary on yourself is harder than it sounds. At first, you may find that you have the urge to cross it mentally—you may want to constantly check your smartphone for messages or think about work while you are having dinner with your partner or playing with your children. Try to shut off your phone as soon as you arrive home and don’t bring it to the dinner table, etc. Equally important: shut off your “work brain” and refocus on the present moment, telling yourself, “it can wait.” Remind yourself that you are allowed to have personal time and to spend quality time with your loved ones. Taking a mental break from work will actually make your work performance stronger when it is time to shift your focus back to that.
2. Engage in Healthy Activities That Have Built-In Boundaries.
If your smartphone has become an extension of your arm and you find it particularly difficult to disconnect, enroll in a class that forces you to do this. Most meditation and yoga classes ask all participants to turn off cell phones or leave them outside of the classroom. This rule frees you from compulsively checking your phone while you are engaging in mind-body practices that encourage modulated breathing and exercises to reduce stress. If meditation and yoga aren’t your style, you can disconnect from work communications by taking your phone out of your pocket and keeping it in your backpack, car or otherwise out of reach while you are working out, coaching after-school soccer practice for your kids’ team or shooting hoops with the guys.
3. Create Healthy Habits.
Cultivate a healthy habit that signifies the end of the workday for you and allows your brain to disengage from work thoughts. Some people find that changing clothes immediately upon arriving home helps “shed” their work mindset. Many people wind down by stopping off at the gym on their way home or going for a jog once home. For others, particularly those who commute by train, using the travel time to read a book allows them to forget work and escape into the world of a story, making them relaxed by the time they arrive home. At least one research study has shown that reading is one of the most effective stress reducers because being engaged in a story alters your state of consciousness, helping your mind reach a more relaxed state.
“Losing yourself in a book is the ultimate relaxation,” says cognitive neuropsychologist David Lewis, PhD, who led a research study at the University of Sussex. “It really doesn’t matter what book you read. By losing yourself in a thoroughly engrossing book, you can escape from the worries and stresses of the everyday world and spend a while exploring the domain of the author’s imagination.” Lewis adds that the same degree of relaxation is not achieved through watching television or movies because those pursuits are distractions that don’t engage your creative imagination to the same degree. Reading has been found to be more de-stressing than listening to music, taking a walk, playing video games or drinking a cup of tea. For those who drive to and from work, listening to a book on tape (or disc) can be nearly as engaging.
4. Outsource Time-Consuming Errands and Chores.
When we lead busy lives, it makes sense to carve out some extra time for ourselves (and loved ones) by taking advantage of modern conveniences, like ordering groceries and precooked meals online for home delivery. As long as your budget allows, outsourcing time-consuming chores to a service provider frees up more time for family, hobbies, exercise and just plain doing nothing—things that are undervalued in today’s “go, go, go” society. Outside services can help out with running errands, doing home repairs, housecleaning, managing/organizing special dates, correspondence and more. Nearly all of these services are easily located through an online search.
5. Develop Healthy Coping Skills.
Many men find that learning to cope with their emotions in healthy ways is a challenge. Why? Because although emotions are part of being human, many men have been raised to focus more on ‘doing’ than ‘feeling’ (e.g. to be active, playing sports and demonstrating success on the field, in school and at work). Men often find certain emotions are uncomfortable or overwhelming; if they aren’t accustomed to expressing them, they may turn to alcohol or drugs to “self-medicate” those feelings away. A healthier approach would be to develop new ways to cope with and manage emotions. You might exercise more—particularly when feeling angry or stressed—and take classes in yoga, meditation or mindfulness to learn healthy breathing techniques and de-stressing methods. You can also start writing down feelings in a journal as an expressive outlet and a tool for clearing your head, alleviating anger or frustration. Talking to a friend is also a great way to cope with feelings and get another perspective on a situation—sharing feelings may be a learned skill for many men. Listening to music, swimming laps, walking the dog or challenging yourself at the local rock-climbing wall are stress-relieving activities that can help you release emotions.
Understanding some of the common male-specific behavior patterns that can lead to stress and burnout is a helpful first step in devising strategies for relieving anxiety and depression in men. It is also important to remember that each individual is unique and there may be certain personal pitfalls to be aware of as well. Taking proactive measures to reduce stress triggers and achieve a better work-life balance is key to improved mental health.
And remember, if taking these measures doesn’t alleviate your stress levels and bring your life into a more peaceful balance, it is perfectly acceptable to seek assistance from a mental health professional to work through any feelings or problems that are bothering you and impacting your well-being.
“Americans Stay Connected to Work on Weekends, Vacation and Even When Out Sick” – American Psychological Association.
“Yoga, meditation counter gene expression changes that cause stress” – Medical News Today
“Reading can help reduce stress” – The Telegraph UK
“Physician Burnout: Tips for Achieving Better Work-Life Balance” – Promises Treatment Centers Blog