Mental Health and Wellbeing at Work

A quarter of people experience mental health problems each year and up to one in six people in work suffer with conditions such as depression, anxiety or stress-related issues. The cost to the UK economy, due to mental health related absence, could be as high as £100bn per year. Mental health is therefore an important consideration for workplace management.

The World Health Organisation defines ‘Mental Health’ as:

A state of wellbeing in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.

Mental health issues can be triggered by a range of factors, including relationship problems, financial difficulties, and workplace pressures. Indeed, work is an important element of our lives which affects, and is affected by, our mental health.

Our work provides us with an income, ensures that we retain social inclusion, keeps our minds and/or bodies active, gives us status or identity, and makes productive use of our time. Therefore, a healthy working environment can prove beneficial to our mental health.

However, in some circumstances, the pressures of the workplace can take their toll on our mental health. For example, high or excessive work demands, insufficient support from management and poor relationships in work, can present problems. These can be exacerbated if there are also problems at home.

Some managers, in pursuit of higher productivity, put pressure on their staff to deliver. This may be designed to motivate but it can prove counterproductive in some circumstances. Often, managers may be best fostering a positive and supportive environment in which their staff will enjoy a better state of wellbeing. This may be more conducive to long-term productivity. Whilst many people cope well with a little bit of pressure, not everyone is the same. Pressure can cause some people to panic and become less productive.

Although perceptions are changing, there remains some stigma concerning mental health at work. Therefore, employees suffering with such problems are not always likely to be open about it. They may think that by telling a manager or colleague that they have mental health issues they will be judged or discriminated against.

Managers need to be aware that making judgements or assumptions on someone’s ability to do their job or receive a promotion, based purely on the condition of their health, is discriminatory. Workplace cultures should be supportive and open about mental health. By improving the mental health of staff, organisations may encourage better staff retention rates, improve staff engagement, reduce absenteeism and increase employee productivity.

It is important that managers are equipped to spot the signs that a member of their team has a mental health issue. For example, managers need to be aware of how an employee interacts or works with other members of their team – i.e. are they suddenly withdrawn?

Anybody can become mentally ill at any stage in their lives. It can be triggered by a range of things, happy or sad. Significant life events such as getting married, having children, experiencing relationship break-ups or bereavement can trigger unexpected mental ill-health. Changes in working conditions, job roles or relationships with colleagues can also prove traumatic.

Mental ill-health may be temporary, intermittent or ongoing. Depending on the type of ill-health, people can be treated through the use of medication, psychological therapy, self-help or support.

Management can provide support for people with mental ill-health in a number of ways. Respect and dignity for all should be a central part of the work culture. Bullying or harassment should be deemed unacceptable.

Communication should be open and honest. Staff should feel welcome and comfortable to discuss their mental health without stigma.

Employees’ workloads should be kept manageable. Staff should be given relative freedom in how they carry out their work and should only be given work that they are capable of doing. Firms may consider introducing flexible working arrangements to help people achieve a work-life balance

Organisational policies should be in place to explain the processes involved in dealing with an employee’s mental health. This may include working with employees with a diagnosed mental health condition to put in place a plan to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ in the workplace and to make staff aware of how to act in the event that the individual experiences an episode of mental ill-health in work.

About the author

Nathan joined RWA in 2016 on successfully completing his PhD. He previously worked in the private, public and charitable sectors. Nathan leads the content and professional standards team at RWA and is responsible for managing and curating technical content on the Aviva Development Zone and the award-winning My Development Zone e-learning platforms.

Since joining RWA, Nathan has written hundreds of business skills e-learning modules and assessments on a variety of subjects, including leadership and management, communication skills, human resources, employability, regeneration, citizenship and equalities.

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