6 ways to protect your mental health at work by backing off

“Care less.” It was the mantra we used just to get through the project. I was leading a massive change management effort for a large hospital system, and almost everyone on the project described themselves, at least behind closed doors, as miserable. We were missing deadlines due to a lack of action from the executives and hitting walls due to the all-too-normal company behavior of expecting things to change without increased clarity or capacity for the staff.

The frustration and disenchantment we felt aren’t exclusive to change projects that are likely to change very little. It’s in the IT employee who feels the work approach lacks creativity and is underwhelmed by the level of talent they work with. It’s in the middle manager who is frustrated with layoffs while executive compensation isn’t impacted.

It may show up in the disconnect for those who work for companies that rank as a best place to work yet feel that the amount of work they are burdened with is unfair. Or it may be felt by the person who has yet to recover from the impact of the covid-19 pandemic.

I’ve spent nearly two decades of my career trying to change companies and even gave a TEDx talk about taking ownership of your career and operating as an intrapreneur. Yet, even I can attest that sometimes we need to rein in our big ideas and aspirations and simply focus on doing the essential work asked of us and on ourselves.

Many of us have put too many happiness eggs into the work basket and, like an investment portfolio, could benefit from diversifying. But how can one “care less” while keeping their integrity? And their job?

A “care less” approach can help your mental health and performance

I once was leading a round of layoffs for a company and reached out to every remaining employee I could. I asked, “How is this impacting you right now?” Some shared they were sad for their now former co-workers, while others were concerned about more work piling up. One of our top performers didn’t sound phased, though. He said, “I don’t think about work the same way others do. I have a lot of things that keep me happy, and I try not to overly rely on work to do that for me, so I’m not sweating this. It’s just a job.” What did he know that most people don’t?

Having a job has been proven to be better for your mental health than not having one. But when you experience mental health concerns at work, due to life, or because of the work or environment, it can be costly to your productivity or impact. (As researchers referencing a study by The Integrated Benefits Institute once put it: “physical health symptoms primarily affect absence, mental health problems tended to affect performance, and unsupportive work cultures exacerbated the effects of both.”)

6 ways to “care less” about work without getting fired

While we may realize we need proper distance between our work and wellbeing, most don’t want to suddenly become aloof or try to sabotage others. Caring less isn’t about sticking it to the man; it’s about ensuring you don’t sacrifice your own wellbeing for the system’s good. Here are tactics you can implement to still make an impact at work while protecting yourself:

Define your new strategy.

Economist Albert Hirschman’s book, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States, shares four responses one can choose when unhappy at work—or in your relationship with your government, etc.:

  • Exit: remove yourself from the situation
  • Voice: try to improve the situation
  • Persistence: grin and bear it
  • Neglect: stay but reduce effort

While I’m suggesting you “care less,” which squarely falls into the neglect category, perhaps another course of action makes more sense, depending on your situation. So before you do anything else, take stock of your situation to feel empowered to pick the strategy that will work best right now for you.

Give yourself permission for a defined period

Whatever strategy you choose is a reaction to your environment and current situation. It does not have to last forever. Instead, consider giving yourself permission to try this for a specific amount of time—perhaps two weeks, one month, or even a quarter. This will help remind you that you are in control while allowing room for new behaviors that serve your wellbeing.

Pull back on company events

Unless attendance is mandatory, consider skipping the meeting and asking a trusted colleague, or your leader, for the highlights. If attending triggers anxiety or leaves you feeling frustrated and unable to do your job, don’t go. This includes all-company meetings, happy hours, and holiday parties—Zoom or in-person.

Office gossip CliffsNotes

Your work bestie Slacks you, “You are not going to believe what just happened!” Instead of taking the bait, consider replying and saying: “I’m keeping my distance from office gossip that will annoy me. Is there something I need to know that could impact me or my work?” Set the boundaries for facts that matter, and most people will learn to honor them and begin to share only details that may be helpful.

Ask for priorities

Most companies aren’t great at setting priorities, but that shouldn’t stop you from trying to fully understand what’s expected of you. Make a list of your current projects (formal or informal), recurring tasks, and other significant categories of work that demand your attention. Estimate how much time each takes you and assign a priority number between one and three: 1 for high priority, 2 for medium, and 3 for low. Share your analysis with your leader, and here’s the key: let them know you’re working to maximize your impact while caring for yourself.

Next, ask them to help you adjust priority levels and how much time is spent on each. Finally, ask if there is any work on your plate they feel should go to someone else (hello, capacity!). Typically leaders leave these conversations shocked by the amount on employees’ plates and are ready to do something about it.

Build a “care less crew”

Many find it risky to open up about frustrations or concerns about others or about their company. While you’re right to be cautious, don’t sacrifice the support of others by never speaking your truth. A sense of community at work, even with just a small handful of others feeling the same way, can help you feel less alone. They also can advise when you’re stuck or want to understand how to react to a specific situation.

How employers may react to the “care less” approach

Even if done simultaneously, the six steps above are not likely to get you fired. Indeed, most leaders will love hearing that you want to maximize your impact and will respect your desire to nurture your wellbeing. And if you try a few of the suggestions in succession, they’ll see you’re not giving up but leveraging your energy in new, ideally more impactful ways.

Perhaps you’re an executive or leader hoping to find balance yourself. Kudos! But know that this rightsizing to work is for all levels of your company. Author Simon Sinek, one of my gurus on people and work, appeared on Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead podcast and shared the following when considering junior workers: “I’m hearing plenty of senior people who are working fewer hours, ending the day a little earlier, not rushing to get back to their emails, and we compliment that behavior and say, ‘Oh, that person’s finding balance.’ But if a junior person does it, we call it quiet quitting. I realize there’s a judgment in it because maybe that junior person is also just trying to find balance.”

If you’re a leader whose blood pressure rises after the thought of your employees “rebelling” like this, there’s good news: their behavior is under your control. First, improve the company strategy and operations. Set better and fewer priorities. While mental health benefits are nice, they will only move the needle if you have operationalized the company culture and strategy you keep touting. Motivate your employees, equip them to maximize their impact, and make changes that support their work, and they’ll care more and be more mentally healthy while doing that. I would take that over an annual subscription to a meditation app any day.

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