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How to support and improve mental health in the workplace

What is mental health?

Mental health is the way we think and feel, as well as our ability to deal with ups and downs.

Mental health is something we all have. When we enjoy good mental health, we have a sense of purpose and direction, the energy to do the things we want to do, and the ability to deal with the challenges that happen in our lives. 

When we think about our physical health, there’s a place for keeping ourselves fit, and a place for getting appropriate help as early as possible so we can get better. Mental health is just the same.

If you enjoy good mental health, you can:

  • Make the most of your potential
  • Cope with what life throws at you
  • Play a full part in your relationships, your workplace, and your community

Your mental health doesn’t always stay the same. It can fluctuate as circumstances change and as you move through different stages in your life.

Distress is a word used to describe times when a person isn’t coping – for whatever reason. It could be something at home, the pressure of work, or the start of a mental health problem like depression. When we feel distressed, we need a compassionate, human response. The earlier we are able to recognise when something isn’t quite right, the earlier we can get support.

Why don’t people talk about mental health?

Awareness of mental health is increasing, but we still face a world where people with mental health problems face discrimination, and can face challenges getting the help they need. Many people who experience distress try to keep their feelings hidden because they are afraid of other people’s responses. 

Fear of discrimination and feelings of shame are among the top reasons people give for not telling their colleagues about their mental health problems. 

When we create workplace cultures where people can be themselves, it is easier for people to speak about mental health concerns without fear, and easier for them to reach out for help when they need it. Even so, the decision to disclose distress at work is not one people take lightly. It is vital that workplaces become environments where people feel safe to be themselves.

How do I recognise a mental health problem?

If we have significant challenges in our home or work life, the chances are that it has an impact on our mental health.

Mental health problems can have a lot of different symptoms and signs. As a rule, you should seek help from a professional if you have difficult feelings that are:

  • Stopping you from getting on with life
  • Having a big impact on the people you live or work with
  • Affecting your mood over several weeks
  • Causing you to have thoughts of suicide

At work, we might notice that we are more tired than usual. We might make uncharacteristic mistakes, find it hard to motivate ourselves, our timekeeping might slip, or we may be short tempered. 

We may look or feel very tired or drained. We could find that we isolate ourselves, avoid colleagues or appear distracted. We might procrastinate more – or grind to a halt altogether. We may also speed up or become chaotic, intruding into others’ conversations and work, and taking on more work than we can manage.

These could be early warning signs, which can be hard to see in ourselves, and it can help to have colleagues who can assist us in connecting these behaviours to our mental health.

If things progress, you might see more obvious signs of a mental health problem in a colleague – outbursts of anger or emotion, absences from work, or not looking after their appearance as they normally would. You may see signs that they have been sleeping less or perhaps drinking more in the evening.

How does mental health impact on-the-job performance?

As outlined by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), poor mental health and stress can negatively affect employees in the following areas:

  • Job performance and productivity
  • Engagement with one’s work
  • Communication with co-workers
  • Physical capability and daily functioning
  • Social avoidance

It’s therefore necessary to educate all employees about the realities of mental health problems, the best ways to identify them, and solutions for treating existing conditions and preventing them where possible.

How do you address mental health in the workplace?

While mental health in the workplace has become a hot topic in recent years, there’s no doubt some stigma still exists around discussing mental health in a professional setting. That said, with the ongoing effects of the pandemic, increased remote and flexible work arrangements, and a global blurring of lines between what constitutes home and work life, addressing mental health in the workplace has shifted from a question of “if” to “how.”

Specific issues in the workplace that affect employee mental health:

Research has identified several workplace factors – known as psychosocial risk factors (PSR) – that can have an impact on organisational health, the health of individual employees, and the financial bottom line. The way work is carried out and the context in which work occurs can have a significant impact on an employee’s mental health – positively or negatively. When employees have negative exposure to these factors, there is potential for the development of stress, demoralisation, depressed mood, anxiety, or burnout.

Organisations need to consider all of these in their efforts to create a mentally healthy workplace. The factors are:

  • Balance
  • Civility and respect
  • Clear leadership and expectations
  • Engagement
  • Growth and development
  • Involvement and influence
  • Organisational culture
  • Protection of physical safety
  • Psychological competencies and demands
  • Psychological protection
  • Psychological and social support
  • Recognition and reward
  • Workload management

Workplace issues that can also affect mental health include:

  • Stigma and discrimination
  • Demand/control and effort/reward relationships
  • Presenteeism
  • Job burnout
  • Harassment, violence, bullying and mobbing
  • Problematic substance use

For more information about these issues, please see the OSH Answers Mental Health – Psychosocial Risk Factors.

According to a report by Oracle, 76% of workers believe their company should be doing more to support the mental health of their workforce. However, while many organisations want to help employees constructively address mental health in the workplace, they often don’t know where to start.

Companies need to start creating a cultural norm so that employees feel comfortable coming forward if they’re facing issues affecting their mental health. Supervisors and leaders of the organisation should be equipped to recommend resources to get employees the help they need.

What should employers do to support mental health in the workplace?

A psychologically safe and healthy workplace is one that promotes workers’ mental well-being and does not harm employee mental health through negligent, reckless or intentional ways. For example, a psychologically safe workplace would be free of excessive fear or chronic anxiety. An organisation’s commitment should start at the top.

One of the most common triggers of mental health problems nowadays is actually a person’s colleagues and stress of work environments, which only continues to increase their reluctance to seek help and regretfully, exacerbates the cause of the problem itself.

The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) outlined several ways on how a workplace can efficiently and successfully cope with mental health problems amongst employees:

  • Ensure a supportive culture of understanding
  • Self-assessment tools for employees
  • Regular clinical screenings from qualified professionals
  • Comprehensive health insurance
  • Counselling facilities
  • Seminars and workshops
  • ‘Relaxation rooms’

How do you promote mental health in the workplace?

Use the following strategies and tips to promote positive mental health in the workplace:

1. Promote a work/life balance. Praising employees who work late and arrive early, or expecting them to work from home in the evenings hurts your company in the long run. Without a healthy work/life balance, productivity is likely to decline, and employees are more likely to burn out. Insist employees take regular vacations where they are able to unplug from the office. Don’t expect everyone to answer emails around the clock. Encourage everyone to develop a rich, full life outside of the office. People who engage in hobbies, spend time with loved ones, and take time to care for themselves make better employees.

2. Establish an employee assistance program (EAP) and talk about it frequently. Offering an EAP benefit that allows employees to access a handful of therapy sessions for free is important. But, many companies don’t spend enough time reminding employees that they should access these services. Remind your employees to use the EAP and remind them of their benefits often. Whether an employee is experiencing marital issues or insomnia, EAPs can help employees deal with the issues that detract from their performance. But they need reassurance that it’s free of charge and completely confidential. 

3. Reduce the stigma associated with mental health issues or concerns. Normalising conversations about mental health within the workplace is the best way to reduce the stigma often associated with mental health topics. Companies whose leaders have openly been willing to discuss their own mental health concerns and experiences with their teams have had success in creating work environments where employees feel empowered and safe to share their own experiences.

4. Provide supervisors and managers with mental health training. Mental health training for management can cover topics such as:

  • Recognising and responding to warning signs
  • Creating a work environment that encourages open and honest communication
  • Understanding how to prevent and identify potential workplace-related emotional triggers

5. Create a positive work environment (a culture of understanding and support). Encouraging employees to openly talk about their feelings without any fear of being judged, whether with a trusted colleague or in one-on-one meetings with a manager, turns the vocalisation of mental health from a taboo into a goal! This will result in the employee feeling listened to and understood, making the work environment a place that could potentially help support and combat the ill-effects of mental health problems. All big movements have to start somewhere; a simple “how are you feeling today?” can have a greater impact than you know, which in turn can end up establishing a solid and healthy channel for communication.

In conclusion, what is also important to note is that in order to be able to care for others, one must begin with taking care of oneself. If you’re feeling particularly stressed or downcast, for whatever reason, then it is essential to take it easy and listen to what your body is trying to tell you. Participating in a fun activity, chatting with friends or family, or simply taking a mental health off-day are various ways you could adopt to pamper your mind and have a healthier outlook on life!

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