How to create mental space at work

Conversations about mental health at work are often met with one of two responses, a vague eye roll of not this again, or a deep dread of being found out. Why? Because stigma is rife, despite the enhanced focus on mental well-being during and post covid and despite around a quarter of working-age people experiencing mental health challenges.

When stigma prevails, people suffer. We are collectively less courageous about the conversations we have, more judgemental of others, and more cautious in the actions we take.

We have work to do. See Change research found over 70% say they would not discuss mental health with their boss and 40% of respondents had witnessed stigmatising behaviour at work. Acknowledging we have a problem with stigma is a good place to start.

People are most influenced by those closest to them at work, so, the people you interact the most with and the environment you spend your time in will have the biggest impact on your perceptions of stigma. This means you have both the power and the responsibility to reduce stigma in your environment.

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the enormity of workplace mental health, so it’s important to focus on the people and things you can directly impact. Remember, it’s not usually big sweeping change, but little actions and your day-to-day behaviour that makes the biggest difference. Don’t be afraid to create space for mental health – in conversations and practically.

We are made up of a whole load of physiological responses driven by neurochemical reactions to our emotions and feelings. These have a profound impact on your physical and psychological wellbeing – as well as influencing how you see the world.

You need this space to process what you experience, feel, and to sort the emotions you have. This processing enables you to heal if you need to and to create useful future neurological patterns.

When you have enough mental space to process what you experience or declutter your mind of ambient emotion – like fear, frustration, and overwhelm, then stress reduces, creativity and productivity increase, and you are more likely to feel satisfied with your lot.

When you deny yourself, or your team, the mental space to just be, you also reduce your capacity for resilience, tolerance, compassion, and a whole load of other helpful neurological responses.

Mental space doesn’t just happen, you have to prioritise it, diarise it even, and then commit. You’re probably better at filling space than creating it, most of us are, especially when something feels hard, uncomfortable, or risky. This space is how you stay grounded, connected to who you are and what you do, and it helps you identify when adjustments are needed. It is worth the investment.

You need to know what you are aiming to create, so explore what space for mental well-being looks like, what helps, and what hinders you within your specific environment. Any action you take to support mental well-being needs to feel personalised to your circumstances and work.

Here are a few simple tips to get you started:

Start with yourself

This does two things. Firstly, it gives others permission to create or use mental space themselves – especially if you are in a position of influence. Secondly, your attitude, or the way you show up, is the one thing you always have control over.

When you get intentional about how you want to feel and show up, then your brain starts to notice the things that support this version of you, adjusting your neurochemistry to match. You need to know how you want to show up and what influences it.

Try thinking of your mental well-being like a bank account, you have to pay in if you want to spend. Think about what energises you (what you pay in) and what drains you (what you spend), then make sure you put in enough to cover what you spend.

If you don’t know this, it is worth spending a bit of time working it out. Take a sheet of paper, draw a line down the middle, and put energisers on one side and things that drain you on the other.

This is not selfish, and you can’t help others if you are drowning yourself.

Choose what you focus on

Many people drift through life reacting and responding habitually, and sometimes feeling quite ‘done to’ as a result. What you pay attention to is important, your sensory system is looking for evidence to support your cognitive bias, (or version of reality).

Mental space allows you to slow down and choose what is helpful to focus on.

Choosing to consciously focus on stuff you can impact, perhaps even things that fill your mental bank account, calms down your nervous system, it makes you feel more in control, and gives you the space to choose your response, rather than just react.

Use ritual and routine

We all use rituals and habits to get through the day, from the way we brush our teeth, to the order we get ready for work in the morning. Think about your morning – when something disrupts your routine, you might feel out of sorts. You can create mental space using ritual – think about the things that help you feel connected, safe, or like yourself.  Ritual is whatever you make it, for some, it’s meditation and mantra, for others a run or being out in nature.

Create healing cultures

Make space for conversation, and learn to listen, when you pay attention people will tell you what matters and how to help them. Whether you are the boss or not, make sure expectations are explicit, behaviour and boundaries are clear, and people feel involved, seen, and valued.

Finally, remember stigma. If you want change, model what you want to see. Aim for awareness, acceptance, and occasional accommodation of each other’s need for space.

The little things are often the big things.

About Professor Lynda Holt MA, RGN, DipHE, CPBP, FinstLM, FRSA

CEO, Health Service 360

Lynda is a prominent leadership voice, author and change activist in the healthcare sector. She established Health Service 360, an award-winning development consultancy, back in 2001 and spends her time helping leaders and health professionals to lead courageously, make tangible change, value themselves, and empower their people. She believes it is each of us, not big organisations, religions, or governments, that change the world. Little action by little action, and as a Professor of Social Leadership at the University of Salford, Lynda helps to equip people with the skills and mindset needed to act and create social change.

Follow Lynda on: X (Twitter): @LyndamHolt   |   LinkedIn


Further support can be found below.

Mental Health   |   WHO   |   Mind   |   HSE

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