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A Guide to Workplace Mental Health

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It’s a common misconception that only mentally fragile people suffer from mental health problems. Unfortunately, despite huge leaps forward with regard to our understanding of mental health, many people still have a negative view and believe mental health issues are something that only ‘happen’ to other people. 

Mental illness is not anyone’s fault, anymore than a physical illness is a person’s fault. Mental illness is also not something people choose to have or not have; it is indiscriminate. Nevertheless, there is still a stigma around mental health that needs to be addressed, and this is especially so when it comes to how mental health problems are viewed at work.

According to the UK’s leading mental health charity, Mind, mental health problems like anxiety, depression and unmanageable stress affect one in six British workers each year. It occurs across industries and throughout the business hierarchy. 

The Mental Health Foundation reports that a staggering 70 million workdays are lost each year due to mental health problems in the UK.

There are many different causes associated with mental health problems, but stress is a likely trigger in the workplace. Even the most resilient CEOs can suffer from burn out.

This guide looks at what workplace mental health is, how to spot the signs of poor mental health, and what employers should be doing to prevent these issues.

What is workplace mental health?

According to the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS), mental health refers to our ’emotional, psychological, and social well-being.’ It affects how we think, feel, behave, how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices. Problems can range from feeling ‘a bit down’ to common disorders such as anxiety and depression or more severe conditions such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.

Workplace mental health simply refers to how we feel on a mental and emotional level while we are at work. It is important to recognise the fact that mental health problems can’t be switched on and off at will. In the past and even today, some business leaders have the expectation that employees can hang up any non-work-related problems at the door with their coats.

While in a mentally healthy person this is quite easy to do, for someone suffering with anxiety or depression, it is much more difficult. This works both ways. Work-related stress can easily spill over into life at home.

A report by the Business Insider reveals that the average person spends more than 90,000 hours in their lifetime at work, and it affects their personal lives. Statistics show that people’s jobs can contribute to workaholism, insomnia, and divorce.

The Government’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) identifies mental health problems and work-related stress as being intimately intertwined. ‘Work-related stress and mental health problems often go together and the symptoms can be very similar. 

‘Work-related stress can aggravate an existing mental health problem, making it more difficult to control. If work-related stress reaches a point where it has triggered an existing mental health problem, it becomes hard to separate one from the other.’

How do you spot the signs of poor mental health at work?

The reason many mental health problems in the workplace go unnoticed stems from the fact that everyone’s experience is different and that mental health conditions can manifest in a number of ways. Frankly, it’s not always easy to spot and the slide into states of anxiety or depression can be quite an insidious one.

Loss of appetite, fatigue, irritability and tearfulness are common signs of mental health problems. Other signs to look out for include:

  • A change in mood (angry, irritable or unusually down and quiet)
  • A change in personal hygiene or appearance
  • A change in productivity or working standards
  • Cancelling or bailing out of meetings at last minute
  • Bailing out of social events
  • Signs of alcohol addiction
  • Frequently getting sick/increased absenteeism
  • Persistently arriving late to work

What should employers be doing?

Employers who choose to do nothing about workplace mental health are putting the success of their business at risk. All successful businesses rely on a workforce consisting of happy and healthy employees. According to mental health charity MIND, work-related mental ill health costs the UK economy up to £26 billion every year through lost working days, staff turnover and lower productivity. Stress stops employees working at their best.

Employers can take positive action to remove or reduce stressors in the workplace, thus preventing people from becoming ill. These measures also help those with an existing condition, as stress will have a considerable impact on the ability to manage their illness.

Most importantly, employers should be creating a business culture based on openness and trust where the issue of mental health can be discussed and individual problems addressed. Most people don’t feel comfortable telling their employer they feel stressed or have a problem. A sizeable proportion of UK employees calling in sick (42%) claim they have a physical illness, when in reality it’s a mental health issue.

On a plus note, forward-thinking businesses are wising up to the benefits of protecting employee well-being and that includes mental health. A robust workplace well-being programme can play a significant role in preventing stress-related mental health problems. Mental Health First Aid in the workplace is a relatively new phenomenon, but it is a clear sign that employers are starting to recognise the importance of supporting mental health at work.

Mental health problems require a passionate and human response by properly trained staff. See how to support employees with a mental health problem in the Mind guide here.

Jason Smith did his degree in psychology at the University of Edinburgh.  He has an ongoing interest in mental health and well-being. 

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