Workplace Mental Health | Advice from a Therapist

Do you know how your workplace impacts your mental health?

Prioritizing your mental health in the American workplace can be tricky. American workplace culture is often all consuming. We even have a whole genre dedicated to workplace foibles called the workplace comedy. Shows like Parks and Recreation or The Office (while hilarious) also show how normal it is within American popular culture to have little to no work/life balance. 

Dominated by what we’ve come to know as hustle culture, American workplaces often consist of high pressure environments, excessive work hours, and unclear or creeping job roles, and the pressure to be self-sufficient and prove your worth through productivity and material gains.

Our workplaces are designed to be a one-way ticket to burnout 

But that’s not the only way in which our workplaces impact our mental health. This culture produces a number of obstacles that take a toll on our mental health, showing up in ways such as: 

  • Increased: anxiety, depression, fatigue, isolation
  • Decreased: self esteem, self confidence, self image
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Poor relationship boundaries/increased strain on close relationships
  • Unpredictable mood changes 
a young Black woman sitting at her laptop, staring out of the window in her office


What are the obstacles within the workplace that negatively impact our mental health?

Setting boundaries: 

At work, there can be immense pressure to say yes to things when we don’t have the time or bandwidth to be able to do our best work. But, not wanting to disappoint people, many of us opt for overworking ourselves rather than establishing and setting boundaries. But what happens when we struggle to set effective boundaries with other people AND within ourselves?⁣ Poor workplace boundaries can contribute to:⁣

  • Chronic stress
  • Feelings of resentment 
  • Increased frustration
  • Frustration and mood swings within relationships 
  • Inability to determine your own priorities

As well as make you more prone to overworking yourself, being taken advantage of, and consistently not having your needs met. Learning to set boundaries helps to prevent these things before they happen, rather than keeping you in crisis clean up mode.

a group of women of color gathered around a conference table looking over their work

Managing microaggressions: 

Microaggressions aren’t just annoyances. They can actually have a traumatic impact. First, what are they? Some examples of microaggressions at work can include: 

  • Women in the room always the default for note taking, administrative roles, etc. 
  • Latin employees being repeatedly mistaken for custodial staff. 
  • Black women being told their natural hair is “unprofessional”. 
  • Trans employees being frequently misgendered. 

These microaggressions are common and repeated, making their impact cumulative for the person on the receiving end of them. These encounters require emotional and intellectual labor on the part of already marginalized and vulnerable populations, on top of the work required of them in the workplace!

Learn More — Your Bill of Rights for Responding to Microaggressions

Toxic environments:

In-person workplace environments require more interpersonal work than remote or work from home professional environments because we’re simply interacting with people on a more regular basis! And within those interpersonal relationships are often power dynamics, determined by the hierarchy of the workplace. Sometimes, these hierarchies are meant simply to delineate a chain of command and make roles for each employee clear–but sometimes they’re more political than that.

Depending on the temperament of your colleagues and superiors at work, the dynamics might not always be healthy. In the workplace, unhealthy power dynamics can quickly become dynamics that enable emotional abuse.

Related Blog — When It’s Not Just Burnout: Recognizing Trauma in the Workplace

A young Asian American woman in casual professional attire speaks in conversation with a colleague who is viewed in profile from behind. She has a skeptical look on her face.

So what can you do to manage these obstacles and prioritize your mental health in the workplace?

Reflect on your values and goals to determine your boundaries: 

What are your personal priorities? What are your professional priorities? What do you feel is reasonable for you to be responsible for? What do you feel is unreasonable for you to be responsible for? Are you willing to expand your responsibilities with consistent outside support? Is there something currently on your plate that would be better suited to someone else? When you take time to think about these questions, you can establish more appropriate boundaries for yourself within the workplace–then you just need to practice setting them. 

One way to set a more effective boundary? Learn to be a broken record! The broken record technique is great to practice if you find yourself over-explaining or getting defensive about why you’re choosing to set a boundary. Repeating yourself using the same or similar language can make your message clear while avoiding the pitfalls of getting defensive or pulled into a debate. Check out an example on that here.

Separate self worth from productivity:

You are worth so much more than what you achieve in a day. There’s nothing wrong with being proud of yourself for what you accomplish, but be intentional about finding other things you value within yourself. 

If you struggle to start outside of your professional accomplishments, challenge yourself to start by picking out a task you didn’t finish when or how you wanted to at work. What did you still do well? Maybe you weren’t able to accomplish what you wanted because the task was new to you, so you had to learn something new before you were able to get back to your typical pace. That’s still wonderful! You learned something new and curiosity is a trait that will reward you over and over. What other qualities do you have, outside of the workplace? 

Practice communication and self advocacy skills:

Many conversations that look out for your best interest are going to be uncomfortable, so it’s important to practice your conversational skills. Take time to consider what message you’re trying to communicate, and what the person you’re talking to might need from the conversation in order to feel heard and listen to what you’re saying. 

Self advocacy is an important skill to develop within the workplace, but that doesn’t make it easy. To help, we developed a bill of rights for responding to microaggressions: 

  • You have the right not to know the perfect way to respond to a microaggression. More often than not, “the perfect way to respond” does not exist. 
  • You have the right not to respond immediately to a microaggression. The ways that our brains & bodies function when we’re surprised, hurt, scared, retraumatized or humiliated often make it impossible to offer a considered response. 
  • You have the right not to respond to every microaggression. There are times and places where it does not serve your well-being, your safety, your needs, or your community to confront a microaggression directly or indirectly. 
  • You have the right not to take on the role of educating others or convincing them that a microaggression is worthy of your feelings about it. That emotional labor is a gift you may choose to offer, not an entitlement. 
  • You have the right to feel hurt, upset, offended or angry even when a microaggression was committed unwittingly or with good intentions. Its impact on you is no less harmful than if it was committed with malice. 
  • You have the right to take the time you need to think through and plan your response to a microaggression. It’s perfectly acceptable to ask others to circle back to address it even if they’ve moved on.
  • You have the right to respond to a microaggression simply by seeking support, comfort, and safety within your community. You are allowed to talk about microaggressions in therapy, and you have a right to find a therapist who will take your experience seriously.

a stack of team member's hands together

Find outside support: 

A workplace that exacerbates issues of depression, anxiety, burnout, or even lead to trauma can’t be entirely managed with workplace self care practices. While you can find ways to care for yourself within this environment, changing the environment or leaving it might be out of your control. 

In such cases, it’s a good idea to have the support of a therapist who can help you work through tricky and intense workplace situations as they arise–and help you maintain balance so those situations don’t rule your life.

Do you need support managing difficult workplace dynamics? We can help! If you’re interested in learning more about our individual therapy services, contact us today

About the Author

Stella Nova is a mental health clinic specializing in therapy for women and nonbinary professionals. We are located in San Francisco, CA and work with clients all over the state of California. Our team of therapists and psychologists offer counseling for a variety of concerns, from anxiety and depression, to chronic pain, to disordered eating and more.

Stella Nova is a LGBTQ+ and BIPOC affirming practice, and we welcome people of all genders who are seeking a feminist healing space.

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Find a California Therapist Near You

Are you looking for support in establishing boundaries in your relationships? Stella Nova offers online therapy for individuals and couples virtually throughout California, and in-person in San Francisco. Our team can provide therapy for relationships, depression, anxiety, stress, burnout, chronic pain, and more. We’re a BIPOC and LGBTQ+ owned and operated clinic that strives to provide an affirming, safe healing space for every one of our clients.

To connect with a therapist near you, schedule a free, 20-minute consultation with our Intake Specialist, Cami.