Fighting workplace social stress with mental health self-management skill workshops

An in-depth look at the results of Skilled Not Ill's skill-building services on someone with a history of depression, anxiety, and addiction.

An Empirical Problem Backed by New Surveys

Workplace stress is a known detriment to mental health. Studies often downplay or fail to mention just how much of that stress is a specific type of stress: social stress.

Social wellness, the antithesis, is how we:

  • - build and maintain work relationships with each other
  • - communicate effectively about work
  • - deal with workplace conflicts in healthy ways
  • - maintain respect for ourselves and others in our interactions at work

New studies have begun to adequately address the social component of workplace stress. For example, a July 2019 report by a firm called Dynamic Signal found that 80% of workers surveyed identified as stressed because of communication issues in the workplace. [source]

Skilled Not Ill has found that it is possible to create a strong sense of social wellness in its workshop participants to the point where their social stress at work has much lower, if any, impact on their mood and productivity.

Above: Humans are social animals. Our social interactions with each other, whenever healthy boundaries and effective communication are lacking, result in what's known as social stress. Social stress in the workplace is one of the contributing factors to lost productivity, which costs the global economy $1 trillion USD per year. [source]

"Whatever you want for yourself and for your life - it’s possible, if you’re willing to use the skills necessary to make it work.”

- Adam W.

Meet Adam

Adam is a government agency worker and military veteran in his 30's with a history of depression, anxiety, and a short struggle with addiction. Adam’s primary reasons for seeking Skilled Not Ill’s services all stemmed from social stress at work.

Adam, who asked us not to use his real name in order to protect his privacy, came to Skilled Not Ill at a time when social stress at work had been adversely affecting him for months. The key issues were:

  • - persistent, negative office gossip
  • - feelings of isolation among his peers
  • - repeated failed attempts to apply within the company and move up the ladder

The social stress at work overflowed into off-work hours, resulting in constant rumination about negative micro-events at work and relentless anxiety about the anticipated treatment from his coworkers he would inevitably receive the next day. The downward spiral into poor mental health and hopelessness at work also brought harm to personal relationships - especially with his mom and long-term, on-and-off again significant other.

Like many adults in the U.S., the majority of Adam’s waking hours were spent at work. He noted that the toxic social nature of his workplace seemed contagious in that newly hired coworkers didn’t last long in their own nature before succumbing to the standard practices of their coworkers’ relentless gossip and mockery.

Adam’s employer did not prioritize, promote, or address mental health in the workplace in anyway, which is not particularly rare.

Workers & Employers are Both Losing

Negatively impactful social dynamics in the office cost the global economy $1 trillion USD per year in lost productivity [via the World Health Organization]. In alignment with this statistic, Adam and a few of his fellow employees, who feared reaching a point of becoming fed up and lashing out, were taking frequent sick days just to get away from the workplace.

Adam sometimes spent hours at his desk at work inventing new ways to distract himself from the uncomfortable, unproductive, gossip-saturated environment. Adam grew bitter and resentful. He would engage in petty arguments and pranks.

Social interactions at work were stressful, and social interactions outside of work were limited.

He did not feel safe in his work environment, and his environment at home was not one to eagerly look forward to. As a person who had issues with addiction in the past, Adam spent a lot of time alone at home to avoid being in high-risk environments, such as bars, where drinking and drugs were readily available and too close for his comfort.

Though Adam's workplace was destructive to his health, he was content with the type of work he was involved in. It was the people with whom we worked that drove him to mental unsteadiness. The emotional impact that work took on him daily was resulting in a regression of symptoms.

Structure, Hope, and a Place to Practice Skills

Skilled Not Ill started an ongoing series of public workshops on mental health skills in February 2018. In February 2019, we embarked on a project to augment the mental health skills workshops with relaxing social activities to form a “mental health social club” at our downtown Philadelphia coworking space. (Refer to the note at the end of this study, under 'Impact', about the state of the social club today.)

There, in conference rooms, we hosted 1-hour in-person events. Our signature event was 'Skill & Chill', a recurring, casual 1-hour workshop-slash-hangout where we used laughter, games, and a structured agenda to teach mental health skills from tried-and-true methodologies like DBT, CBT, and Positive Psychology. We also had our own unique set of custom-made skills to boost self-confidence, resilience, and cheerfulness.

We used these non-clinical and non-intimidating 1-hour events to bring local people together and teach them practical, simple, and easy-to-remember mental health skills. “Like a gym for your brain,” we would say. The promise of being around others with mutual interests in mental health and self-improvement made Skilled Not Ill’s public workshops a desirable place for even the shyest adults to spend a weeknight.

Adam found out about Skilled Not Ill’s mental health social club on and signed up for a workshop shortly after the social club was in full effect.

Adam, along with up to 9 other attendees at a time, learned DBT skills like Radical Acceptance and CBT skills like Reframing ‘Anxiety’ Thoughts. He also learned original skills from Skilled Not Ill’s methodology like Boundaries Reduce Bitterness - how to use a clear knowledge of one’s personal values as a template for determining what boundaries they need to set up or maintain with others.

Adam’s Approach

To ensure the results of each workshop created an ongoing positive impact on his mood through the week, Adam RSVP-ed to all posted and available workshops in advance. On occasion, Adam would attend more than one workshop per week, even if it was a repeat, to achieve a sense of social comradery and support that enhanced the feelings of progress and momentum in mental health improvement.

In all, Adam participated in 9 Skilled Not Ill mental health group skill-building workshops over a period of 2 months and one week. During that time, workshops were hosted each week and at multiple times per week. In addition, he attended a wide range of social activities that we put on, including game nights, watercolor painting, and non-alcoholic “mocktail”-making workshops.

The Results

Adam’s average mood when he showed up to Skilled Not Ill workshops and events went from reluctant and low-energy to engaging and chipper.

There was even a visible physical change. His posture upon entering the room for the first time was that of someone sulking and hiding. His eyes were avoidant and his gaze rarely reached eye level. He was reluctant to speak, except when expressing self-doubt. At the end of the second workshop, however, he faintly smiled for the first time upon leaving. After the first few workshops were under his belt, a new version of himself had emerged - his posture straightened up, he smiled to greet others in the room, he participated willingly in group discussions, and he started sharing real-life examples of his own use of the skills at work to demonstrate to newer attendees - and himself - that he was making progress with the things he was learning.

The most notable change Adam noted was his newfound indifference to the stressors at work that once tormented him. Though the toxic social behavior of his colleagues at work did not improve, his resilience drastically did.

Both Adam and the Workplace are Benefitting

Developing a relationship with Adam, we learned he was frequently using the mental health self-help skills he picked up by attending Skilled Not Ill workshops on a frequent basis at work.

“Radical Acceptance is lessening the tension in my relationship with my department at work. I’ve stopped being passive aggressive and stopped finding little ways to be petty. I accepted it and now I’m polite and quiet and do my work as quickly as possible and accept that I don’t always have control over my coworkers’ opinions of me.”

Adam also stopped using sick days to avoid dealing with difficult people at work. He started handling these interactions with less vulnerability and more confidence.

Two Skills that Stand Out

A quick explanation:

  1. BRB - "Boundaries Reduce Bitterness" is a skill that begins with identifying one’s top 5 personal values from a long list of options and then deciding what boundaries are missing or need to be improved in order to continue living by those values. Boundaries define where one person ends and the other person begins.
  2. RA - "Radical Acceptance" is a mindset skill that involves choosing coping statements that help the individual accept reality for what it is, allowing them to move on, rather than rejecting it and continuing to suffer emotionally. “This shouldn’t have happened” and “I can’t believe this is happening” are examples of thoughts that reject reality and emotionally punish the person thinking of them.

In Adam's words:

“Lately, there are two SNI skills I’ve been championing hard. The first one is creating healthy boundaries.” The workshop in reference here is called BRB - Boundaries Reduce Bitterness. Adopting this skill involves being clear on your personal values and using them to protect yourself and others from getting hurt by a lack of clear communication.

“Creating healthy boundaries creates better relationships. For example, in regards to romantic relationships, I’m typically not good with boundaries. In the past, when I’m emotionally entangled with someone, I feel like there are no boundaries and that I have a right to everything they have, to know everything they know. I assume everything is going to be shared if we’re that close. But lately I’ve been establishing clear boundaries to strengthen relationships, and I’ve been noticing how much it’s helping.”

“The second one is Radical Acceptance. I’ve always tried to do it but never looked at it like a skill. I’ve always been interested in Buddhism and always saw it as something like that. After the SNI workshop on that, it solidified it more in my head and helped me see how I could do more to try the skill and work harder on it.”

Why Skilled Not Ill’s Services Worked, in Adam’s Words

The skills Adam learned and practiced at Skilled Not Ill meetups, he said, have had a positive impact on his mood, confidence, and overall self-esteem.

“With the Boundaries Reduce Bitterness skill, I feel more secure about the interactions I have with people now. I don’t feel like I’m being too aggressive or too emotional or that the other person is being too aggressive or emotional or needy. In reference to his significant other, Adam said, “Everything is clear and structured instead of free flowing and chaotic, and everything is where it should be and we know where it is.”

“The Radical Acceptance skill definitely helps my mood.” Applying this skill brings Adam to a place where he knows, “if I can’t change it, I can change how I feel about it and how it’s going to affect me. [Radical Acceptance] helps me see that part of the situation that I can actually deal with.

Most impactfully, the Boundaries Reduce Bitterness and Radical Acceptance skills served as solutions to Adam’s problems in social interactions at home, in addition to the positive effects he has been experiencing at work. “Being clear on my values and boundaries is making my [romantic] relationship work better.” Adam said the other person has observed and noticed. “It sparked a good discussion with the two of us about establishing healthy boundaries. I approached it and admitted that I haven’t been good with boundaries in the past. I acknowledged it needed to be addressed.” This indicated a new, higher level of confidence that Adam seemed to have reached - one that he didn’t have when he first came to Skilled Not Ill three months prior.

Impact on a Larger Scale

The social club project ended due to a loss of funding. It reached over 850 people in the greater Philadelphia area. Due to their popularity and importance, Skilled Not Ill still offers public workshops as a pro bono service on a less frequent schedule each month. You can look up the event schedule at

Adam’s Advice on Achieving Mental Health Success

Note: Adam’s advice to others is based on his own experiences with overcoming the struggles of living with mental health challenges.

In addition to therapy and Skilled Not Ill: “I spent a lot of years reprogramming myself and how I view everything in my life - my family, my friendships, my relationships. I decided the role models I wanted to be like and defined myself based on them.”

“It’s good to actively try to better yourself at all times. Nobody’s perfect. But we can identify issues in our behavior and the ways we approach life and we can better ourselves. It won’t all get fixed, but it can get a little better every day.”

According to Adam, the people that would benefit from Skilled Not Ill’s workshop on boundaries are: “People with relationship issues as well as people who have abandonment issues and trust issues. It would definitely be better for them to establish healthy boundaries. Also, people who aren’t exactly secure for whatever reason.

The people he says that would benefit from Skilled Not Ill’s workshop on Radical Acceptance: “Everybody in modern society. It’s a good one. I would say: If it’s not yours to fix, then let it go."

Final words: “I would say: Whatever you want for yourself and for your life - it’s possible, if you’re willing to use the skills necessary to make it work.

Top photo: What a typical whiteboard looks like after collaborative 1-hour "Skill & Chill" mental health skills workshop - a visual summary of the skill discussion. The green circles and text in green are some of the attendees' contributions with their ideas for what should belong in someone's "Thought Base" (a foundation of automatic thoughts, an original skill concept by Skilled Not Ill.)
Underneath: What a typical group of attendees looks like - diverse, casual, and friendly. Here they are hanging out together after a workshop.

Above photos: Founder Kat Jost delivering workshops on mental health skills that can be helpful to anyone, regardless of whether they have experienced mental illness or not. Our workshops are not like therapy or any other form of mental health treatment for which a therapist or other clinician would need to be present. We do not discuss personal histories, traumas, diagnoses, or medications. Everything we discuss is light and positive.