How to maintain your mental health and wellbeing at work

Sandra Surace

University of Melbourne alum Sandra Surace completed her Master of Applied Positive Psychology, worked as a tutor and mentor at Melbourne Graduate School of Education, and has since used her knowledge to improve wellbeing practices across various school and work communities.

In the lead up to World Mental Health Day, read what Sandra, Head of Workplace Mental Health at SuperFriend, has to say about the value of mental health and her top tips for nurturing your wellbeing.

By Sandra Surace

Not long ago, many employers felt some trepidation at even talking about mental health and wellbeing at work. They felt their core responsibility was maintaining the daily operations of their business and overlooked the mental health and wellbeing of their employees, despite it being vital to an effective workplace.

Undoubtedly, poor mental health can dramatically affect both workplace and individual performance. Physiologically, your body wears the stresses, strains, and challenges you are facing, and you may experience symptoms such as an inability to focus, irritability, and closedmindedness. Poor mental health is more than just feeling sad or low – it not only affects our bodies but also affects how we see the world and interact with it.

The good news is that most workplaces are now talking about mental health and wellbeing. Some have moved beyond gestures like fruit bowls to develop an end-to-end mental health and wellbeing approach that promotes positive practices, reduces risks and provides vital support through hardship.

Looking after your mental health and wellbeing at work

While it’s important for employers to foster an environment where mental health and wellbeing is a priority, everyone plays a role in creating a workplace where workers can flourishWith that in mind, a great framework for individuals to explore is the 5 Ways to Wellbeing (Aked, Marks, Cordon, & Thompson, 2008).

What's important to note here is there is no one way to an individual's positive mental health and wellbeing – at work or at play. Everyone's experience is as unique as they are and we all need to explore what works for us. In her book, The How of happiness, Prof. Sonja Lyubomirsky (2010) says there is a person-activity-fit.  What this means is that what works for me, is different than what works for you, so you have to play around and make some mistakes to find your fit!

1. Connection

One of the founders of positive psychology, Chris Peterson, would often start his lectures by stating, “I can sum up Positive Psychology in three words – other people matter.”

A sense of belonging is one of the strongest protective factors that tackles mental illness and promotes positive wellbeing. In fact, according to a meta-analysis co-authored by Julianne Holt-Lunstad (2017), a lack of social connection heightens health risks as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day!

No matter who you are, relationships and connections are critical for mental health and wellbeing. To improve your sense of connection, you could try:

  • Calling a colleague or talking to them in person rather than over email
  • Making time in meetings and catch ups to celebrate achievements and good news
  • Introducing yourself to someone you don’t know or reaching out to a new starter and offering help.

2. Keep learning

Learning is more than just engaging in formal education. Everyday learning keeps the neurons in the brain firing and helps us to remain healthy and active as we age – and has also been shown to be effective in preventing depression and dementia in later years.

In a 2011-2014 study of 10 countries across Europe examining the popular benefits of lifelong learning, almost 9000 people were surveyed (Manninen & Meriläinen, 2014). The results showed significant benefits across domains of self-efficacy, sense of purpose, improved tolerance, positive social engagement, mental wellbeing, and work and family for those who engaged in life-long learning.

Learning doesn’t need to be expensive or have an official outcome. You could try:

  • Attending webinars, or if you’re pressed for time, watch a TED talk on YouTube, read an article, or listen to podcasts that you’re interested in
  • Learn how to fix something around the house that’s broken
  • Learn a new language or brush up on a language you might have studied at school. There are some fun apps like DuoLingo to get you started.

3. Notice

Taking notice is tuning into yourself, others, and your surroundings. It’s being mindful of our thoughts, feelings, senses, and what’s happening right here and right now.

We often go through the motions – cooking, cleaning, maybe caring for pets or children, watching TV, doing the laundry. We go to bed and our minds are whirring, thinking about how things should be instead of how they are.

But taking notice can improve our attention, sleep quality, emotional management, self-esteem, stress management, and reduce risk of common mental health conditions. (Janssen, Heerkens,  Kuijer, van der Heijden & Engels , 2018).  It may include a mindfulness or meditation practice, or it may not. It’s really about noticing the little things in our day that bring us joy, as well as being aware of our own physical sensations that are messages from within.

Ways to take notice include:

  • Paying attention to your breath, or taking slow deep breaths in times of challenge to help your mind and body
  • Looking at particular things on a walk or run – dogs, flowers, water, colours and really observing the beauty
  • Practicing gratitude to see the beauty in each day: take a photo and write a short caption and share with a friend for 100 days. It can be difficult at first but then you will learn to see so much in your day to be grateful for.

4. Be active

Exercise! We know it’s good for us and makes us feel good and the science agrees. The incredible mental and physical benefits of exercise include the short-term release of endorphins and serotonin (the body’s natural mood enhancers), and the long-term reductions to stress and anxiety.

Research into people diagnosed with a mental health condition shows that exercise can contribute to improvements in mental illness symptoms, including mood, alertness, concentration and sleep patterns. (Alexandratos, Barnett & Thomas, 2012)

Just as an active lifestyle helps us, a sedentary lifestyle can harm us. Recent research suggests that sedentary behaviour may be linked to risk of developing anxiety, due to disturbances in sleep patterns, social withdrawal, and poor metabolic health.

Being active doesn’t have to involve a gym membership. You could consider:

  • Walking meetings and catch ups with friends when the weather permits
  • If you work or study from home, stand up between meetings, take some time to stretch, or exercise when you would have commuted (but now you don't!)
  • Try out different sports, exercises and movement plans to find something that suits you!

5. Give

We might feel like we already give so much of ourselves every day and cultivating a spirit of generosity can be difficult when we feel this way. Lack of trust, fear, and a feeling of scarcity can all block our ability to be generous.

However, giving elevates prosocial behaviours, like helping, sharing, comforting, and cooperating. These prosocial behaviours have mood-boosting effects and lead to a sense of purpose and accomplishment. Research has shown that doing an act of kindness just once a week over a six-week period is associated with an increase in wellbeing. (Lyubomirsky, Sheldon & Schkade, 2005).

Giving can be as simple of complex as you want it to be. You could:

  • Bake a cake to celebrate a colleague’s achievement
  • Offer to help a colleague at work, or someone with whom you study, who is overwhelmed with a task
  • Simply smile as you walk past someone or give a genuine compliment!

Mental health and wellbeing are strengthened by your everyday practice; it's the cumulative action that makes a difference. Find what you like across the five ways and ensure you embed this into your lifestyle – start small and be consistent! Your body and mind will thank you in the long run.


Aked, J., Marks, N., Cordon, C. & Thompson, S. (2008). Five Ways to Wellbeing: A report presented to the Foresight Project on communicating the evidence base for improving people's well-being. New Economics Founbdation, Centre for Wellbeing.

Alexandratos, K., Barnett, F., & Thomas, Y. (2012). The impact of exercise on the mental health and quality of life of people with severe mental illness: A critical review. The British Journal of Occupational Therapy, 75(2), 48–60.

Holt-Lunstad, J. (2017).  The Potential Public Health Relevance of Social Isolation and Loneliness: Prevalence, Epidemiology, and Risk Factors, Public Policy & Aging Report, 27(4), 127–130.

Janssen M, Heerkens Y, Kuijer W, van der Heijden B, Engels J (2018) Effects of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction on employees’ mental health: A systematic review. PLoS ONE 13(1): e0191332.

Lyubomirsky, S., Sheldon, K. M., & Schkade, D. (2005). Pursuing Happiness: The Architecture of Sustainable Change. Review of General Psychology, 9(2), 111–131.

Lyubomirsky, S. (2010). The how of happiness. Piatkus Books.

Manninen, J., & Meriläinen, M. (2014). Benefits of Lifelong Learning BeLL Survey Results. LIfeLong Learning Programme. University of Eastern Finland.