Managing mental health at work: the art of burning out and rebuilding the brain

by | May 23, 2022

The art of burning out illustration.
Image Credit: Rosie - Anna Mischke @peachbaby
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I was born to be a racecar driver. Racing is in my blood and runs through my veins.  My grandparents, Dr. Joseph and Dr. Rose Mattioli, founded the NASCAR track, Pocono Raceway, in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania in the 60’s. It came as no surprise that I fell in love with racing as a young boy.

My racing career began when I was six and it quickly developed into my life’s passion. I was committed to climbing the ladder to race at NASCAR—by age 17 I became a NASCAR race car driver. Although I had made my dream come true, my mom made sure that my life would not only consist of fast cars and asphalt bullrings. She insisted that I obtain a college degree. This proved challenging because unlike other sports, racing doesn’t have a collegiate feeder system.  I struggled with finding balance. I knew I wasn’t going to give both up.  

 A typical week consisted of attending class at Fordham University, Monday through Wednesday, and then getting on a flight to meet my team at the next track that was on schedule. I found time to prepare for my school and my races while I traveled back and forth. I did this until my senior year.

By the time I graduated, I had a poor diet, a non-existent exercise regime, and was reeling from pain as a result of racing accidents that caused concussions and few other serious injuries. By 21, I was burnt out. I stepped away from racing and leaned into my studies. I graduated with a degree in Sports Management.  After college I began a career in data and analytics. Working provided me some incredible perks but it was also challenging. I lived in Chicago where the winters are long and cold. I worked 10-12 hours a day which left little time for a social life. Although I was good at my job, I wasn’t happy. I maintained this lifestyle for a year until one morning I woke up and I couldn’t move. My body had completely shut down again and my brain was on fire. I went to several doctors, who told me I was fine. I received a prescription for  Xanax, which didn’t help.

Months later, I discovered the Amen Clinic, a national mental health organization. Dr. Amen, performed a brain scan on me to gain a better understanding of what was going on with me. He is a huge advocate of healing people through understanding their mental health.  He believes you have to treat the person before you treat the disease. Dr. Amen uses a technique called SPECT. This technique allows him to identify underlying physical issues that are causing mental problems. It also allows physicians to understand where the blood in your brain is flowing and the areas that are exhibiting the most activity.

My brain scan showed that the concussions I suffered from racing had caused damage to my temporal lobes, the area of the brain that controls decision making and emotional stability. While many people see mental health as purely an emotional affliction, it’s much more physical in nature than many would imagine. Dr. Amen’s goal for me was to increase blood flow to the underserved regions of my brain. I did this by changing my diet, exercising, committing to 8-9 hours of sleep, and doing consistent breath work.

I was so inspired by Dr. Amen’s work that I became certified as a Brain Health Coach and a Health and Wellness Coach. Now I used my knowledge and personal story to help my coworkers and community with managing their mental health in their work environment.

We’ve all experienced a lot during the past couple of years, and many are still working through this unprecedented collective experience. It’s important for leaders to think more strategically about how to create a psychologically safe work environment. This can include implementing a dynamic work schedule and allowing people to work from home. Providing employees an option to work from home allows them an opportunity to design their lifestyle.

This will also allow for your teams to make better diet and exercise choices as they have more control of how and when they have free time. Leaders should also encourage employees to interact with peers from different specialties and provide opportunities for new learning. 

Breaking up the monotony of any job is essential for people to become excited and to train their brain to invite change. Finally, the best thing a leader can do is be patient and allow their employees time to adapt.  The brain doesn’t like change, so you need to give your employees the time to implement a change.  Pivoting away from a new process before people have had ample time to adjust will almost certainly guarantee failure and make your employees more skeptical about trying to adapt to future changes.

As we’ve learned, change happens to our business whether we’ve planned for it or not, so the best strategy is to help your employees develop the skills necessary to adapt. While the one size fits all approach has become our collective habit, dynamic environments that are essential for the mental health of your employees are quickly becoming the new normal. By providing a structure that allows people to flourish in a personal rather than a prescribed capacity will help them to develop their ability to adapt to any change.

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Topic: Wellness
Written by Chase Mattioli
Data Unicorn

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