This blog aims to provide insights into some of the factors that can impact, both positively and negatively, on our mental health. But we start with looking at what mental health, or mental wellbeing, is.
What is mental health?
“Mental health is a state of mental well-being that enables people to cope with the stresses of life, realize their abilities, learn well and work well, and contribute to their community. It is an integral component of health and well-being that underpins our individual and collective abilities to make decisions, build relationships and shape the world we live in. Mental health is a basic human right. And it is crucial to personal, community and socio-economic development.
“Mental health is more than the absence of mental disorders. It exists on a complex continuum, which is experienced differently from one person to the next, with varying degrees of difficulty and distress and potentially very different social and clinical outcomes.” The World Health Organisation
Before we look at some positive steps to improve our mental wellbeing, first it is important to understand how stress can impact our lives, then we will look at what resilience is and how we can optimise our mental health.
What is stress?
Stress is the way we react to a perceived danger. It has two forms – one that builds up over time from regular stressors, like a heavy workload or noisy working conditions; the other is more dramatic and is caused by a sudden or unexpected event, like a car accident or a bereavement. Below are the six HSE Management Standards  which provide examples of work-related stressors:
- Demands - your workload and how challenging it is for you.
- Control - how much control you have over how, when and where you do your work.
- Support – how much help you get to do your job (when required) and how much training is provided.
- Role – whether the job is right, whether you want to do it, and if you can do it.
- Relationships – how you get on with your colleagues, including your line manager, and how well you work together.
- Change – how much notice you receive about upcoming changes and whether or not you agree with them.
Do any of these resonate with you? If you feel you would like to explore this further, please speak to your supervisor, manager or HR to discuss how they could be alleviated.
So how do you know when stress is too much stress? It is important to acknowledge that excessive stress, over periods of time, without the ability to recover, leads to fatigue, feeling overwhelmed, unable to cope and burnt out, which results in ill-health. However, the line between ‘stress’ and ‘excessive stress’ depends on the individual, as everyone reacts differently to it. What matters here is not how much stress you can endure, but that you have the skills to reduce the stress.
This is where resilience comes in. Resilience is built when we move between stress (‘fight or flight’) and relaxation. If we continue to use up our energy in the fight or flight phase, without allowing ourselves to relax, then we become mentally and physically exhausted. More on this later.
How to spot the signs of stress
Before we can put solutions in place to reduce stress and build mental wellbeing, first we need to be able to spot the signs of stress in ourselves and others. Through recognising and understanding our feelings we can move to accepting and remedying the causes:
It is important to keep people in the green and yellow zones and recognise early where the pink is starting to be noticed. If we do not pick this up early, the ‘line of delusion’ may takeover and we start to hide our true feelings and make excuses for why we are not feeling right in ourselves or not reaching out for support, leading to crisis and being mentally unwell.
Have you spotted any of these signs of stress in yourself or others? If yes, please speak to your manager, supervisor, or HR to discuss how the causes can be relieved. Alternatively, if you would like to talk to someone outside your organisation, please find further information below.
What is resilience?
“Resilience is the ability to adapt and recover when experiencing stress. Resilience is not the same as being mentally strong [determination to succeed, but not necessarily having the ability to do so] or coping with stress [but not necessarily effectively]”. 
We all know that the way to build muscle is to exert them and then allow time for them to recover, before repeating the process. Building mental resilience can be seen in the same way. Through stress (exercise) and recovery (sleep, nutrition and so on), we build resilience (strength).
How can we optimise our mental health?
Having identified what can cause stress and how to spot the signs, it is important to reassure you that there are things we can do to help us maximise the impact of the recovery period, in order to support our mental wellbeing:
Research found that 48% of people felt that sleep had negatively affected their mental health in the last 12 months. 
Sleep is an important part of the recovery process; it is the body’s natural and most effective way to repair itself. Some helpful tips to achieve a good night’s sleep include:
- Have a pre-sleep routine, for example:
- No ‘blue light’ (phone, laptop, TV etc.) for one hour before bed.
- Keep to a regular bedtime (if possible) whether it is a workday or the weekend. Why not set an alarm telling you it's time to go to bed and remove the distraction.
- If you work shifts, then change the entire day and not just when you go to sleep.
- Ensure your surroundings are conducive to sleep – dark, quiet, warm, comfortable.
- Remember you don’t have to get all of your sleep in one go.
- If you struggle to get to sleep, try mindfulness, e.g., think about a place you love, a place where you feel calm, imagine your journey to that peaceful place; slow your breathing by taking long breaths in and out.
Research shows that 35% of people say their eating habits have negatively impacted their mental health in the last year. 
If we want our car to perform well, then we need to put in the right fuel and oil, ensure it has water, that the tyres and spark plugs are in good working order. In the same way, to make our body’s work well, we need the right food to provide sustained energy, and water to keep hydrated. Some tips to improve your nutrition include :
- Try to avoid sugary and caffeinated drinks as an alternative to breakfast, as the ingredients will give you an initial ‘perk’, followed by a ‘crash’, leaving us tired and possibly irritable. Instead, eat a healthy breakfast, preferably including protein, e.g., an egg, beans, or protein shake. This is a great option as it promotes long term ‘balanced’ energy without leading to dips in our blood sugar levels, which can lead to low energy, feelings of anxiety and ‘hanger’.
- For the same reasons, try swapping out some unhealthy snacks, e.g., chocolate, sweet biscuits etc. for fruit or healthy flapjacks to help maintain energy, and blood sugar, levels.
- Try to take a meal break and don’t eat on the go as this will probably prevent us from digesting the nutrients properly and it will have an impact on our mental health.
- Meals should ideally include carbohydrates for energy (e.g.: brown bread, seeded wrap, jacket potato or rice), protein (e.g., ham, cheese, tuna, eggs, chicken or falafel) and colourful fruit and vegetables.
3. Being active
‘Almost one in three people (32%) said that exercise improves their mental health, with over a quarter (27%) saying that exercise lifts their mood and helps them feel less anxious or depressed.’ 
Exercise helps us to live longer and healthier lives, it also helps to improve mental wellbeing:
- This could be going to the gym, going for a run, something more meditative like yoga, but it is also about moving around throughout the day.
- Getting up every hour (when possible) helps us to have a mental break from whatever we are working on, improves our mood, it helps our eyes to refocus at a different distance, and it helps to get our internal waste disposal system moving.
- If your job is sedentary, then find ways (if safe to do so) to move whilst sitting – refocus your eyes on an object further away than your work, lift and drop your shoulders, put your feet flat on the floor and lift the heel, then the toes, and when possible, take a walk around the site.
4. Work/life balance
Creating a healthy work-life balance has always been hard in some industries, especially when working away from home or working long hours, particularly as the cost-of-living crisis has forced many to take on additional work. For some, their home life can also be a stressor, e.g., if family members are ill, or through demands to be at home more.
Remember, a break from ‘work’, however you take it, is vitally important for both mental and physical wellbeing. Here’s how you can make time for you:
- Try to ‘unplug’ from work when away from it – turn off work mobiles and/or emails.
- Exercise and social activity like visiting and talking with family and friends can help you to unplug.
- Organise your work into critical (must be done today), urgent (needs to be done, but not necessarily today), standard (no deadline) and nice to do. Ensure you achieve the ‘critical’ and if possible, some of the ‘urgent’ tasks, then you can leave work feeling confident that everything else can wait until another day.
If your work-life balance is a stressor for you, please speak to your manager, Employee Assistance Programme where available or HR to see what can be done to redress the balance.
‘Three in five people (59%) said that the cost-of-living crisis has negatively impacted their mental health in the last year.’  This is probably not a surprise, especially now, with the festive season behind us, and credit card bills on the horizon, this is an area of concern for a lot of people. Here are some ways to help manage debt:
- Create a budget – start by looking at what money is coming in and what it is being spent on – both fixed, e.g., mortgage/rent and council tax, and variable, e.g., food, energy, transport etc. What is left is your discretionary spend, e.g., for entertainment.
- Look at where you could save money – this could be removing items that are not essential, e.g., subscription to a magazine or TV package; or saving money, e.g., through fixing your energy tariff.
- If you are in debt – look at how you can manage that debt, e.g., through a repayment plan, there is great advice and help on the StepChange website.
- Build a nest egg – if or when finances enable you to, start to put money away for any unexpected expenditure or for your retirement.
If you are worried about your financial situation, please visit the MoneyHelper website.
Further to the points made above, the following techniques can also help to reduce stress, improve recovery, and help to build resilience. Not all of them will be appropriate, achievable or effective for everyone, so experiment and find what works best for you and your life:
- Deep breathing (see the NHS website to learn how to do this).
- Grounding – is the practice of physically connecting yourself with the earth, e.g., this could be lying on the ground, walking barefoot outside, etc.
- Positive thinking – this is not about ignoring negative aspects in your life, but about framing them in a way that enables you to have a hopeful outlook, e.g., through a positive approach to any challenges.
- Visualisation – this technique involves imagining what you want in, or out, of your life, it is about ‘seeing’ the outcome you want.
- Learn or try something new.
- Set achievable goals.
- Connect with others and talk about your feelings.
- Take breaks when you need them.
Above all, ask for help when you need it. It’s okay not to be okay. It’s okay to ask for support (see below).
Where to find support
Returning to the car analogy, in order to keep your vehicle on the road and working efficiently, most of us would take it to a mechanic to service and repair it. In the same way, from time to time, we also need outside support to help us maintain, or improve, our mental health. Remember, it’s okay not to be okay, there is always someone who will listen, and the organisations below are a good place to start:
You can also download free infographics and guides from the resources section of this website. We also offer a range of training courses that can help you build knowledge and understanding across your organisation.
In this blog we have only just touched the surface of the different ways to recover from stress and improve your mental wellbeing. Throughout 2024 we will be publishing blogs which look at each theme in more depth. The next one will be on Sleep and will be published in March.
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Remember, you are not alone, there is always someone to talk to or somewhere to find additional help.
 British Safety Council Resilience Training course
 The Nutrition element has been contributed by Laura Bryan, from Mind Nourishing, who specialises in reducing mental health related issues within the construction sector through nutritional interventions. www.mindnourishing.com