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After another long day at work, Sam gets home feeling emotionally beaten and mentally tired.

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Trying to keep up to the demands of his manager, he’s felt like he’s on a fast-moving treadmill for the past year that continues with no sign of his work slowing down. Even after his best attempt to push hard to catch up, the demands continue. Just when he thinks he’s seeing a ray of light for getting caught up he gets one more task, followed by yet another task. The pile keeps growing, and he feels like he’s barely able to keep up.

Because of this trend, Sam has been feeling more and more overwhelmed, stressed and mentally tired. It’s taking a toll on his overall happiness, health and well-being.

In cases like Sam’s, where it feels like there’s a constant demand that fuels daily stress that’s not being resolved, stress accumulates. The longer Sam feels overwhelmed and can’t reduce his stress and avoid feeling emotionally overwhelmed, the greater the risk for impact on his mental health. And the longer his mental health is strained, the greater the risk for developing some form of mental illness.

How many people do you know like Sam in the work force today?

This micro skill introduces a concept called mental fitness, which is defined by what a person does daily to strengthen their mental health.

Awareness

Most of us know that building physical fitness requires resolve and that you take the right actions to improve your nutrition, exercise, rest and hydration. Those who are consciously focused on their physical fitness have a fitness plan that they adhere to weekly and they also set goals and ways to measure their success (such as reducing their body weight or body fat percentage). People who are more physically fit are less likely to develop chronic disease like type 2 diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease.

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The same can be said about mental fitness. People who develop a mental fitness plan can reduce their risk for mental illness, and if they have a mental illness, improve their quality of life.

Accountability

What was your mental fitness plan when you woke up this morning? There are typically three responses to this question: 1) not sure how to answer, as they have no frame of reference; 2) does not like appearing to be unprepared, so they make up something; or 3) actually have a mental fitness plan.

Having asked this question to tens of thousands of people in talks, I find anecdotally that the majority fall into bucket one.

To make any change begins with awareness. Until a person has a frame of reference, they’ll only know what they know. A well-known published statistic is that one out five Canadians has a mental health issue in any given year. Perhaps this should read: one out of five Canadians knows they have a mental health issue.

Many who are experiencing mental health issues don’t know that their mental health is strained or that they meet the criteria for a mental illness (such as suffering from general anxiety disorder), because the onset of most mental illnesses is gradual, akin to putting on an extra 10, 20 or 30 pounds. They get used to carrying the extra body weight.

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With respect to mental health, as people become more stressed, less fulfilled and less happy, this becomes their new normal and they accept that life is what it is. They don’t realize that with the right support and information things can change and their quality of life can be drastically improved.

Action

When we talk about mental fitness we’re not talking about any pathology or clinical diagnosis. We’re talking about the mental health continuum that can go from low to moderate to high with respect to the degree of personal happiness. It’s a continuum that we all can move back and forth on, depending on life circumstances, resiliency reserves and coping skills.

How we define where we fit on the continuum is how we feel. Our emotions are our guide, whether we’re doing okay or not feeling like ourselves.

Mental fitness coaching tips:

Get your stress baseline – Complete The Globe and Mail online Quality of Work Life survey to get a baseline. Repeat it every three months to evaluate how your mental fitness plan is working, until you’re convinced that it’s doing what you want it to.

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Design your daily mental fitness plan – Outline what you’ll commit to do daily and weekly to promote your mental health. Options include mindfulness, meditation, resiliency-charging activities (such as exercise, diet, rest, social connections, passions), personal development (such as coping skills training such as emotional intelligence), daily journaling and practicing gratitude.

Implement a daily mental fitness plan – Measure and monitor your commitment and progress. Make your mental health important and have a daily checklist of what you’ll do and evaluate it at the end of the day. Your effort, commitment and how you feel will provide a feedback loop for correcting and adjusting your plan. A daily mental fitness plan can your improve mental health, just like a physical fitness plan can make you fitter. It doesn’t need to be hard; just consistent and intentional.

Bill Howatt is the chief research and development officer of work force productivity with Morneau Shepell in Toronto.

You can find other stories likes these at tgam.ca/workplaceaward

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