Why is mental health so important in the workplace?
While the wellbeing of people should be reason enough, mental health also presents its impact in business in hard numbers. Let's dive into the statistics.
How many people miss work because of mental health issues?
Mental health conditions such as work related stress, depression and anxiety account for 44 percent of all work-related ill-health cases in the UK, and 57 percent of all working days lost are due to ill health. That adds up to 12.8 million missed working days.
Figures published in the government’s recent Thriving at Work report revealed that mental health-related absenteeism costs 300,000 Brits their jobs a year, and accounts for £42bn in lost revenue.
Given that around 325,000 people in the UK have to leave employment due to a cancer diagnosis, this is a pretty shocking statistic.
It goes to show the clear disparity between the impact and the treatment of mental health. We know the steps needed to treat illnesses like cancer, or other life-changing diagnoses, but clarity around mental health procedures is sorely needed.
What happens before job loss: presenteeism and absenteeism
People really don't go to the dentist or have a mild flu as often as they might say: 51% of absenteeism can be attributed to mental health problems. But there's also another issue: presenteeism. This is showing up for work while you really shouldn't, and with mental health problems, it happens a lot: presenteeism is responsible for 81% of productivity loss.
Having a job is what often contributes to better mental health, thanks to the increased feeling of security, financial freedom, and social contact with others. It shouldn't turn into the place where your mental health plummets.
Then why is mental health so hard to discuss at work?
There's a mental health awareness day, week, month even. Many companies post about it on social media, showing the outside world that they ''get it''. But it's much more nuanced than saying you are aware of the importance. Especially if nobody at work is talking about it.
The stigma around poor mental health
21 percent of people in the UK feel too embarrassed to take time off for mental health problems. 40 percent of workers feel it is easier to get time off for physical ailments.
The discussion about mental health at work is hard for both sides. There's still a stigma around mental health problems, and in the workplace, it can be hard to find the right balance: one should be able to talk about it to eradicate the taboo. On the other hand, you want to be discreet. After all, it's still a personal matter.
For employees, it can be awkward or feel too personal to open up about their mental health problems to someone they work for. Often, they don't know what to ask for or what they need. These problems are in many cases much harder to solve than other medical issues.
These employees don't want to be perceived as weird or weak, or be treated any differently. There's a fear that others will brush off their mental health problem as they ''look'' fine. And work related stress, isn't that just part of the job?
The role and responsibility of employers
For employers, there's the question of how deep they can dig into someone's personal problems and what questions to ask. Managers often don't feel equipped to talk about mental health. They don't want to offend anyone by misinterpreting mental health problems. And as a manager, it raises so many questions like:
- What to do about these issues?
- How long will it take to solve this?
- What are your responsibilities as an employer?
The role employers play entails getting everyone on board. It's important to note that mental wellbeing should not only be the concern of those working HR. It has an impact on everyone in the workplace, thus support should be created throughout the entire organisation.
What can cause mental health problems?
Mental health conditions can be caused by a variety of factors, and often it is a combination of things. A big life event, genetics, underlying health issues: it's often hard to point to just one culprit. But, how someone feels at work can aggravate pre-existing mental health conditions.
What's the difference between mental illness and health?
Someone can show up with mental illness and function just fine, if they're being treated accordingly. Mental illness and mental wellbeing are different, yet connected. Poor mental health can lead to mental and even physical illnesses.
How work affects mental health
Employers should seek to support employees to prevent mental health issues before they occur. This means that you should make sure that the workplace is at the very least not a damaging factor, but rather a place of support.
Why? Because work related stress can do much more harm than you might think. The fact that so many people are stressed, doesn't make it right. It's still a health hazard. Here are some things to look out for as an employer:
- Work related stress: having a challenging job is in most cases better than having a mind-numbing one. Try to find the balance and make sure what you are asking from your employees is reasonable and doable to keep work related stress to manageable levels. And note: those levels are different for everyone.
- Work-life balance: the wellbeing of people goes beyond what you do in the office. The hours someone works and whether or not they get contacted outside working hours heavily impacts their mental state.
- Workplace bullying: unfortunately, this is still a relevant topic today. As an employer, this can be hard to spot and even harder to tackle. Start by building a good company culture from the ground up.
- Workload: it's not just what type of work you do, but also how much you are expected to get done. Increased workload is one of the main triggers for mental health problems.
- Lack of control: don't think that just an overload of responsibility can cause work related stress. It's also a lack of it. If people feel they're unable to make decisions about their own job, this can add to their stress levels.
- Workplace dynamics: social situations can be stressful anywhere, but at work especially. If there are difficult relationships between employees and employers, this can greatly impact everyone's wellbeing, even if you're not directly involved in the conflict.
What does it mean if someone is burnt out?
You've probably heard the term burnout when talking about work related mental health conditions. It can sound very abstract, but burnout is very real, and it's becoming a big issue in the world of work.
People can actually handle stress pretty well: we can barely compare the stress of an office to what it was like to hunt for your own food—while being hunted.
Everyone has a limit, and when it comes to stress, that is related to our allostatic load. This is the sum of repeated and chronic stress people are exposed to. See it as the maximum amount of stress you can lift before you break.
Work related stress, personal problems: it all adds up to the same load. It doesn't matter if the stress is unrelated, it all goes into your body and brain. And when it's too much, you can experience problems, such as burnout.
When someone experiences burnout, they are drained and exhausted. Physically and mentally. Everything can feel like ''too much'', and this feeling will also affect your mental health.
Is all stress bad?
No! Sometimes stress, even work related, stress can be good for us, but it highly depends on how stressful something is, and how long and frequently we're exposed to it. A challenging assignment at work every once in a while can therefore be good stress: also known as eustress or beneficial stress.