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Why Self-Care at Work Should Be Job No. 1

How to schedule stress-relief into your day — and keep those appointments with yourself!

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You’re working at your desk when your smartwatch dings, signaling that you’ve been inactive for too long. Maybe the only movement you’ve made all day was walking from your office to the ladies’ room or from one conference room to the next for meetings. Or perhaps you rode the elevator from the lobby of your work building instead of taking the stairs.

All this lack of activity can trigger physical health issues. But a hectic schedule with few breaks poses another serious problem tied to mental health — little relief from stress. Research shows that stress is a potentially deadly workplace issue for Black women because of its relationship to heart disease. According to the American Institute of Stress, 8 out of 10 American workers say they feel stress on the job. One-fourth of them identify their job as the number one stressor in their lives. Job stress can cause musculoskeletal and psychological disorders, lead to workplace injuries and compromise cardiovascular health. Heart disease kills 50,000 Black women each year.

Megan Williams was working a tension-filled job in healthcare administration when she started to experience menstrual cycle issues, fibroids and a thyroid-related flare-up. She was laid off and within two months, her health issues began to clear up. She didn’t go back to that job nor did she start a new one. Instead, she founded Black Freelance, an online resources portal for African American freelancers.

Initially, Williams had considered getting another job but realized pretty early that she couldn’t do it long term.“ I was already freelancing a little bit part time,” she says, “but seeing how much better my health was outside of employment is what really cemented ‘you have to do this full time.’”

Economic disparities at work also take a toll. Considering that Black women are one of the lowest paid groups yet work more hours, we feel the stress both mentally and physically. An Institute for Women’s Policy Research study reports that Black women participate in the workforce at higher rates than any other group of women, but households headed by Black women are still more likely to fall below the poverty line and at rates second only to indigenous women. Black women between the ages of 49–55 are 7.5 years biologically “older” than white women. Perceived stress and poverty account for 27 percent of that difference, according to the Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation (SWAN). Boosting your salary can boost your health.

How to keep your job from killing you

Program peace into your password: What if your log-in was an affirmation or mantra? How many times would you repeat it? Dozens! Consider “#Peace247365” or “*Psalm23.”

Leave the building: Whether it’s to go to the gym, enjoy a salad, get your nails done, sit in a nearby park or walk around the block, build at least two breaks (your lunch hour and a 15-minute breather) into your day. Smokers don’t hesitate to step out for a nicotine fix. Give yourself the same permission to get your wellness fix and just breathe.

Schedule quiet time on your i-calendar. Block out a 30-minute standing appointment with yourself so that people who schedule meetings won’t invade that mental space.

Create a calm space: Keep flowers, photos or inspirational messages on your desk to keep you centered.

Reevaluate your work goals: Williams advises women who are grappling with high-stress jobs to begin to rethink their relationships with work, even if the solutions aren’t immediate. What do you want from work besides a paycheck? She asks, “Do you want a job that gives you freedom to travel or spend time with your family? We have to start from that point in being honest with ourselves and open with people around us like, ‘I’m tired of this job’ and finding people who are willing to listen.”

Set limits: Melissa Kimble, Ashley Simpo and Laura Providence are all former full-time employees, contractors and entrepreneurs who cofounded KINDRD, an agency in partnership with Blk Creatives, which promotes professional wellness for people of color. Kimble says to help prevent stress, manage your tasks by pausing before you say “yes” or “no” to a request. Williams, who passed on additional work projects to save her health, suggests similar advice. “For people who want to stay in a job, I think you have to give yourself space to say ‘no’ to promotions or more work.”

Seek extra support: Consider a consult with a therapist and/or primary care doctor for any emotional or physical symptoms.

Use your sick leave for mental health: Anxiety and other stress-related conditions are serious health issues. Take a mental health day. Your boss doesn’t need to know it’s not for a stomach ailment. Experts recommend a break when 1) you’re distracted by something, such as getting behind on your bills (and taking time to tackle your budget could reduce anxiety), 2) you need time to be alone and recharge or 3) you feel that it is time to check in with your mental health provider.