We’re seeing a lot of discussion around the mental health of IT professionals lately. And rightfully so – given the conditions we work under, the risk of burnout is huge!
The irony is, we spend so much time and energy maintaining “system health” that we end up ignoring our own health.
With that in mind, let’s get the concept of “mental health” or “physical health” in isolation out of the way. At Freshservice, we believe that health needs to be holistic – physical, mental, and emotional.
Why? Let’s see:
Anyone who isn’t physically fit can’t claim to be mentally healthy no matter how smart they might be; studies have shown that exercise physically impacts the brain and makes it bigger. If you’ve recently started to spend half an hour every morning on any sort of physical workout, you’ll know what I’m talking about. You’re more alert throughout the day, you have better cognitive abilities, and when you get home, you even have the energy to spend time with your loved ones.
If you don’t fall into that category, you might be thinking – “But Jack, I’m in IT! Forget a half-hour workout session in the morning, I barely have time to squeeze in lunch.”
I see what you mean. But if there’s anything I’d like you to take away from this read, it’s this – we all have just 24 hours in a day. Taking care of your body and your mind will give you the energy to be present in (and make the most of) every moment you spend awake. And completely shut off when you want to, well, shut down for the day.
If you’re one of those IT folks who’s always the first one to come in and the last one to leave with just one legit break in between, stop doing that to yourself. Here are 5 of my favorite workouts you can try to kick-start your day:
Meditation and Yoga
“You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day – unless you’re too busy; then you should sit for an hour.” — Zen proverb
Although paradoxical, it makes so much sense. While making sure the systems keep running, we deal with a lot of chaos. There’s always a “What if” – “What if it breaks?”, “What if I’m not around to fix it until it’s too late?”, “What if I mess this up and end up bricking the entire system?”
Panic and frustration have never solved a problem, ever. Your job is to do everything in your capacity to make sure problems don’t arise. But sometimes – through no fault of yours – the inevitable may still happen. Stop beating yourself up for issues that you could not have controlled or prevented. What’s happened has happened. You now have to switch your focus to the next steps in the process.
You can take it a step further with Yoga. Meditation, as we know it, is one of the asanas (positions) of Yoga. If you suffer from a chronic pain or illness, there’s probably a yoga asana for you. If you’re a beginner, starting your day with Surya Namaskar (or The Sun Salutation) will have a profound impact on your focus and overall well-being.
If you like something a little more intense, and you genuinely can’t make the time, this one’s for you. The 7-minute workout consists of 12 exercises that you do for 30 seconds each with a 10-second rest between them. If it sounds simple, wait till you try it out.
It provides the fitness benefits of prolonged endurance training in much less time. The strain you put yourself through in the morning helps you burn calories the entire day. Besides, it psychologically preps you for a tough day ahead. Think about it – you just put your body through 30 seconds of pain and in 10 more seconds, you have to do that again. Here’s what it looks like:
Source: The New York Times
I like to go a step further and add a 13th – the side plank on the other side – just to balance things out. You do not need to install apps or hire trainers for this one. All it takes is a room with a chair in it. If you want cues to follow along, there are multiple videos on YouTube that you can play along.
If working out feels like something you have to do, you’re doing it wrong. You shouldn’t have to drag yourself out of bed to hit the gym at 6 in the morning. Think about your favorite outdoor sport when you were in school. Whatever it was, there’s almost definitely someone in your group who still plays it. Reach out to folks in your organization to find people with common interests and add the sport to your morning ritual.
The best way to motivate yourself to do something is to have something pull you toward it. If you keep pushing yourself, you’ll soon burn out.
You can have interactive games at the workplace too like Table Tennis and Foosball. This can extend to encouraging the use of stairs over elevators and providing standing desks as an option. All that said, WHO refers to health as a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being. So, being a part of a community outside of work is equally important.
If field sports are too mainstream for you, you can take up combat sports. There are various martial arts you can learn about and choose the one that best suits you. Ranging from Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu to Muay Thai you can pick whichever makes sense given your current fitness level, fitness goals, and principles. You can progressively work your way to the black belt if you wish to attain mastery in your chosen field.
If you do not want to commit to one specific martial arts form and don’t care about belts, you can go for MMA (mixed martial arts) too.
There’s nothing like a good swim followed by a wholesome breakfast for a hot summer morning. That paired with all the health benefits without the risk of injury makes it a great option for someone who’s just starting to work on their fitness. Plus, if you’re not a great swimmer yet (welcome to the club) it’s a crucial life skill to pick up.
Aside from the benefits for your physical health, swimming helps to alleviate stress, improve flexibility, coordination, balance, and posture. Let’s also not forget the therapeutic value it provides – if you’re nursing certain muscle sprains, injuries or weak joints, it’s great for gradually strengthening the affected area.
Another benefit of being a good swimmer is that it opens up a plethora of other water sports you can partake in – surfing, water skiing, skurfing (skiing + surfing), wakeboarding, tubing et al.
From talking about laps, let’s move on to naps. And unlike swimming, sleeping is definitely my strong suit.
We all need varying amounts of sleep. Some people like Martha Stewart and Indra Nooyi can function with just 3-4 hours of sleep. Others like Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates need 7-8 hours. Some professional athletes like Roger Federer and LeBron James sleep for a good 11-12 hours per night. But finding out your sleep requirements and getting in the minimum hours every night is crucial. And since you can’t be productive if you’re too tired or sleepy to focus, you can even go for a midday nap if required.
If you think I’m just being lazy, let’s talk about why we need to sleep. James Clear has written an extensive post on the science of sleep – I highly recommend it if you’d like to learn more about the circadian rhythm or REM sleep. But on a fundamental level, we need sleep for three main reasons: restoration, memory consolidation, and metabolic health.
In order to get the optimal amount of sleep your body needs, Clear recommends developing a “power down” ritual. Start decluttering and turning off electronic devices a couple of hours before bedtime. “Two hours?”, you might ask, “What am I gonna do for two full hours?” – spend that time reading a book or writing a journal. You’ll sleep better, learn something, and save it in your long-term memory while asleep. Plus you’ll give your subconscious mind something to chew on at night, which might even help you come up with creative solutions to problems you’re trying to solve.
Now that I’ve listed my 5 favorite workouts (sleep being one of them), I want to close by emphasizing that mental health is an integral part of our overall health and should not be swept under the rug. It needs to be discussed more openly. Discuss it with your colleagues, bring it up with your manager, be vocal about it in your org. Employers and managers also need to create an environment where employees can speak up safely and feel listened to.
While there are things you can do at your workplace to promote mental health, there are things you can do away from work too. Your work allows a certain amount of vacation time but working in IT, you get so used to the constant slogging and firefighting that you feel guilty taking your allotted time-off. While your system’s health is important, you have to strike a balance between helping keep your system up as well as yourself healthy. Take some time off, take a break. You’ve earned it.
I hope this made you think about your health. Share it with someone you think needs to read this. Cheers!
Cover Image by Sharmila