When COVID-19 hit, many grew concerned for their physical health. But demand for mental health help also surged during the pandemic. In 2021, The New York Times surveyed 1,320 mental health professionals and found that 90% said they saw more clients seeking care.
Alongside increasing requests for formal care, a more general interest in mental wellness arose. Between February 2020 and February 2022, for example, Google searches for mental health services and centers for workplace mental health grew by more than 1,000%. Inquiries about “how to ask for a mental health day” experienced similarly large growth.
People also began searching the web for mental health strategies. Such queries lead surfers to articles offering tips, research, and products. One such article from the Anxiety & Depression Association of America encourages readers to cultivate better mental health by improving their sleep, nutrition, and exercise.
We wanted to investigate the mental health strategies used by working parents — a group of workers whose well-being deteriorated significantly because of the pandemic. The data revealed the tactics parents most often use to preserve and bolster their mental health. It also illuminated a tendency among respondents to value diagnostic measures over preventive options when it comes to formal care.
Parents’ top-five mental health strategies
In May 2022, BetterUp collected data from 502 parents working full-time in the U.S. with one or more children living in their households. We asked respondents to identify the main strategies they use to maintain and promote their mental health.
- Parents — the chronically sleep deprived — favor shuteye
Fifty-six percent of respondents said they use sleep as a means to mental wellness. This finding may strike some as ironic; parenting, after all, is a notoriously sleep-depriving job.
Still, sleep was the most popular strategy among the parents we surveyed. It likely deserves its high rank; sleep and mental health affect one another greatly. Psychiatric problems like anxiety and depression can cause symptoms of insomnia. But a lack of sleep can also contribute to the cause or worsening of such mental health conditions.
Adults should sleep at least seven hours each night, according to The American Academy of Sleep Medicine. For those who have difficulty clocking enough time under the covers, a few strategies may help. Experts recommend going to bed and waking up at consistent times, establishing a bedtime routine, avoiding afternoon coffees, and creating a cool and relaxing sleeping environment.
- A time out for mom and dad
The next most popular strategy among the parents we surveyed was taking breaks. Forty-five percent of respondents said they try to pause throughout the day to preserve and better their mental health.
Breaks are especially important for workplace mental health. According to The American Psychological Association, “work breaks function both as prevention and intervention.” Regular breaks help workers process challenges and stressors, and they allow workers respite from lengthy to-do lists.
While longer pauses like a bonafide lunch break or an afternoon walk certainly help workers who need stress relief, shorter breaks provide benefits, too. Researchers found that employees who take “microbreaks” to relax, chat with coworkers, read the news, or watch a funny video experienced more positivity during the work day.
- Running burns calories — and negativity
Exercise was the third most popular mental health strategy, with 43% of parents naming it as a go-to wellness tactic.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, exercise offers a number of benefits for our mental health. It boosts levels of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, for instance. It also delivers other benefits, the Washington Post reports, sharpening focus, granting a sense of accomplishment, and providing social stimulation.
Here’s the best part: People don’t need to run a marathon or hire a personal trainer to benefit from exercise. Parents can even get their kids involved: Family bike rides provide a serotonin boost for all and reinforce healthy attitudes toward physical activity in growing minds.
- Phone a friend
Fourth on the list was getting support from friends and family. Forty-three percent of respondents said they reach out to loved ones for mental health support.
When someone is vulnerable about their mental health with friends and family, they gain more opportunities to find support. Loved ones not only offer the solace of their own care and concern but also can connect people struggling with the help they need.
- Crafting, reading, baking for wellness
The fifth most popular mental health strategy commanded 42% of respondents, who indicated they turn to their leisure activities and hobbies to stave off mental health woes.
Our levels of interest in activities that typically excite us can help us determine whether we are mentally well. Anhedonia — the inability to feel pleasure — is a classic symptom of depression. But hobbies also serve as preventive tools; one study shows that art-making lowered 75% of participants’ cortisol, a hormone responsible for stress.
For those who struggle to make time for hobbies, experts recommend looking for small amounts of time to do something fun. Busy parents can perhaps multi-task, listen to books and podcasts while walking or running, or do crafts with their kids.
What about the less-popular strategies?
Formal mental health care strategies like coaching and therapy commanded less attention from respondents. Among those options, parents gravitated toward therapy; 22% of participants said they attended therapy, as opposed to 8% who said they talked to a coach or mentor.
As the discussion around mental health grows more open, experts are highlighting preventive care as a powerful yet undervalued measure in securing good mental health. Coaching has been proven to support mental well-being by helping people develop skills like emotion regulation, adaptability, and resilience. By improving their overall mental fitness, people are less likely to sustain (or cause) emotional and relational injury.
Employers may note another less-popular strategy: getting support from co-workers. Many workplaces are actively attempting to decrease mental health stigma while increasing support. Derailing this effort is a lack of social connection within the workforce. A recent BetterUp report found that those low on social connection are more likely to experience anxiety and depression, burnout, and stress. Workplaces should cultivate an array of strategies to combat isolation and loneliness.
Our sample comprised working parents, yet the results likely speak to a broader swathe of workers. As employers develop mental health programming and benefits, they’ll need to remember the varying needs and preferences among workers to create support systems that are effective and inclusive.