Therapy is traditionally thought of as a place to process mental health issues or trauma, but it can also be a space to work through, well, work. Career- and job-related stress is a pervasive problem, affecting many people in the U.S. workforce.
In a 2019 Everyday Health survey, about a third of American adults reported that their work or career was a significant, chronic source of stress. Unsurprisingly, the pandemic has only perpetuated the burnout. A recent report suggested that upward of 85% of people who experience mental health issues at work feel it is negatively affecting their life outside the office, as well as their relationships and their sleep patterns.
Burnout can progress to clinical anxiety or other mental health issues. Therapists say this is a sign to seek out a mental health professional.
“Anxiety in general can always be improved when you have an outlet for your fears and your worries,” Jen Kelman, a therapist and mental health expert on JustAnswer, a digital platform that connects people to experts, told HuffPost. “Having a therapist as a safe space to talk through [work issues] without fear of judgment is wildly helpful, even if you’re not removing the work-related people or projects that are causing severe stress.”
What’s more, seeking out a mental health professional can help you learn coping techniques and skills to make the workplace feel more manageable. As Kelman notes, “a therapist can help you develop strategies to improve your work habits, communicate more effectively, and advocate for yourself more clearly.”
HuffPost spoke with eight people about the best work burnout advice they learned in therapy, and what effect this advice has had on their overall health.
Clearly communicate your work capacity.
“I used to struggle a lot with setting intentional boundaries in my work,” said Hernán Carvente-Martinez, the Founder of Healing Ninjas, Inc. “I used to pick up every call, answer every email, as fast as I could even on days off, which gave everyone the impression I was always accessible.”
“My therapist asked me to be intentional about communicating my capacity to those I worked with so that they knew how much I could or could not do for them,” he explained. “This allowed me to improve my workflow and take care of my own energy in a much more intentional way without feeling like I was failing in some way.”
Use your vacation days and sick days.
Though many workers in the United States don’t receive vacation and sick days, a study found that an estimated 768 million vacation days went unused in 2018 by those who do have such benefits.
Abigail Ortega, the founder of psychotherapy group Love, Listen and Play, said that her therapist’s advice to use her vacation and sick days was beneficial to her mental health.
“American culture praises working hard, long hours no matter what,” Ortega said. “Having time away from work allows me to decompress, connect with family, rest my mind and body, explore different countries and cultures, and gain perspective. I call my sick days ‘wellness days.’”
Try to practice empathy when working with difficult people.
Rosario Mendoza, a program associate, told HuffPost she often dealt with not-so-kind customers when she worked in retail. Her therapist told her that “people who mistreat you are usually having a bad day, and while that is no excuse, just remember to practice empathy.”
Mendoza said that this piece of advice helped her approach work conflict as a learning experience, and taught her the importance of finding supportive co-workers.
“I feel like those little self-pep talks which stemmed from therapy helped me get through my college jobs,” she said. “It helped me grow as a person; I learned to control my anger, but also to empathize [with others].”
It’s OK to fail.
Eileen Chanza Torres, an associate professor at Westminster College, said the best advice she learned in therapy on this subject was simply that “it’s OK to fail.”
“I’m still working through the process of failure,” she said. “It has been really hard. I fail a lot, but not with grace. That was part of the conversation [in therapy] — how to accept and let things go so they don’t fester.”
Understand and acknowledge how bias may affect your ability to work, and to show up as your authentic self.
Bias in the workplace against women, people of color and other marginalized communities is a well-documented issue in the U.S. For Barbara Robles-Ramamurthy, a psychiatrist and social entrepreneur, her therapist encouraged her to use their sessions as a space to acknowledge and process how bias was affecting her wellness at work.
“Therapy has helped me understand how internalized racism, sexism and other forms of systemic oppression impact my ability to bring my authentic self to my daily professional and personal work,” she said. “Most importantly, it has helped me strengthen my self-love and self-compassion, allowing me to reconnect with my values, recognize and use my strengths to bring more light to this world and trust the power in me to create positive change.”
If you are experiencing discrimination at work, there are ways to securely document it for any future complaints you may need to make.
Abuse and mistreatment in the workplace is never OK.
“My therapist straight up told me to quit a well-paying, high-profile job because of an abusive boss,” Maggie Mesa, a business owner and skilled laborer, told HuffPost. “I quit about six weeks before the pandemic. There were some real moments of financial fear, which translated to anger towards having to deal with the circumstances in the first place. That anxiety was mitigated by knowing I was saving my own life of sorts.”
Leaving an abusive job or career can be difficult, both emotionally and financially, so it’s important to have a plan and a support system in place to help you. “Ongoing therapy helped me cope with the transitions, and now I’m in a literal different state, [with] an art-based career and a thriving personal life,” Mesa said.
Have an identity outside of your work.
“Until about a year ago, I was working at a job that I had a love/hate relationship with,” said C.B., a student who asked that his full name be withheld for privacy reasons. “I had a lot of trouble putting my work down and relaxing, or doing other activities. When I did, I often experienced extreme anxiety.”
“My therapist encouraged me to make sure I had a secure identity that wasn’t related to my job, which ended up being great advice,” he said. “As soon as I felt confident in who I was without the job title, I felt safe enough to leave a toxic work environment.”
Your self-worth isn’t determined by your income or productivity at work.
Wendi Melling, who currently isn’t working, says her therapist pointed out to her that her self-worth isn’t determined by income or work productivity ― and this changed how she set about pursuing a job.
“Getting that advice helped me decide on what the next steps in my career should be based on my own wellness, rather than on the capitalist model of ‘keep climbing the ranks at all costs,’” Melling said. “It made a world of difference to my mental health, specifically on the job, to give myself permission to stop judging ‘success’ with a definition that didn’t necessarily apply to me.”
In some cases, therapy may focus on helping you develop stress-relieving techniques to use in the workplace. In other cases, seeing a mental health professional may provide the support needed to quit a toxic job.
While there is no universal approach to balancing wellness and work, Kelman, the therapist with JustAnswer, said that ultimately, “the goal of therapy is for you to feel relief, feel understood and feel safe.”