Mental health: Here's why it matters in the workplace

Sophie Heatley, Content Writer · 19 Nov

Depression and anxiety are among the biggest killers in the UK. It is the leading cause of death among young people aged 20-34. Faced with such shocking statistics, we need to change our approach to mental health at work. What is being done to help people suffering with mental health at work? Is there light at the end of the tunnel?

What is a mental health problem?

Mental health is most commonly associated with anxiety and depression.

The most basic definition of anxiety is a feeling of worry, nervousness or unease about something. It often comes with a sense of impatience, longing or foreboding, and can be manifested in breathlessness, panic attacks, social isolation – for instance, an inability to be in public places or a need to remove oneself from social situations – or a compulsive tendency to over-think or worry obsessively.

Depression, anxiety’s counterpart, also negatively affects how you feel and act. Depression is often distinguished from anxiety in that it manifests itself through sadness, lethargy, and feeling persistently hopeless for days, weeks or months at a time.

Anxiety and depression can be medically diagnosed as mental disorders. There are medical treatments, such as anti-depressant medication, as well as certain talking therapies, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, to help.  

Both anxiety and depression come in many shapes and sizes from minor to extreme. Minor could be suffering from regular episodes of depression, feeling low and hopeless from time to time, but still being able to function ‘normally’ and go about your daily life. Extreme, on the other hand, could be suffering anxiety or despair to the point of considering taking your own life.

holding hands

In 2017, 5,821 suicides were recorded in Great Britain. 75% of these were male, and 25% were female.

The good news, though, is that suicide rates are falling. The overall rate of suicide fell by approximately 2% last year in the UK. Of course, this isn’t a major change, but even if only baby steps are made, they’re still baby steps in the right direction.

The crisis of mental health in the workplace

Around 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year. Unfortunately, it appears that how people deal with mental health problems is getting worse as the number of people reporting self-harm, suicide ideation (considering different ways to end one’s life) and experiencing a common mental health problem (such as anxiety and depression) is on the rise.

While on the one hand, these statistics are both worrying and anxiety-inducing in themselves, it does also suggest that the figures are increasing because more people feel that they can speak openly about suffering from a physiological illness.

What we need to face, then, is how to deal with the growing number of people who are requesting help. It’s all well and good if people feel they are finally able to talk about their problems, but if we don’t have anything in place to actually help the prevalence of mental health issues, these problems will only fester and escalate.

What is burnout and why does stress cause it?

Often, anxiety and depression in the workplace stems from being overworked. A burnout is a physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress. It is an emotional state of complete exhaustion caused by prolonged strain and worry.

That said, it’s not just based on working long hours. Burnout can come from working towards goals that don’t resonate with your ambitions or philosophy, from feeling like you don’t have control over how you do your job, and from a lack of social support.

It’s important to tell the difference between experiencing a burnout and just feeling stressed. ‘Just’ feeling stressed should still be monitored with caution though, as, unfortunately, ‘just’ being stressed is the first symptom of burnouts.

Other symptoms of burnout include emotional exhaustion, a cynical or depersonalised attitude towards work, and a reduced personal efficacy.

Nervous hands

Emotional exhaustion is when you gradually become more and more detached from your work. If you’re suffering from emotional exhaustion, you may wake up feeling completely demotivated and dread coming to work. You may experience a low mood which simply refuses to lift, no matter how bright the sun is shining or how softly the birds sing in the morning.

Cynicism also comes across in an employee’s growing disengagement from their work. One way to look out for this is to see if any of your employees have undergone a serious personality change. Are they increasingly irritable or impatient, when before they were compassionate and understanding?

Finally, burnout also rears its ugly head when it comes to productivity. If an employee is suffering from burnout, their work ethic will likely dramatically decrease in efficiency. Their output will begin to mirror their input – also a significant drop.

Your working life should not contain any of the above.Employees should not be encouraged to believe that feeling stressed or burnt out is a ‘normal’ part of working life – it isn’t. It is a dangerous attitude to have.

Not only does it affect the company’s productivity as a whole, but it could lead to the employee needing to take sick leave, or worse, quitting their job.

What steps are the government taking to tackle mental health issues at work?

Indeed, according to a recent report by The Guardian, mental health problems are forcing thousands out of work in the UK. Around 300,000 people with long-term mental health issues are estimated to lose their job each year, suggests a survey commissioned by Theresa May in 2017.

What’s more, these losses account for nearly £42bn in lost revenue too.

From an economical perspective, mental health can affect worker productivity, company profits and the country’s economy. Research shows that improved treatment of depression and anxiety in the workplace could actually improve the country’s economy.  

The government recently claimed it will take measures to support people with mental health issues in the workplace. Prime Minister Theresa May has announced plans to develop more digital mental health services, as well as to add extra funding to mental health provision budgets. She also aims to encourage companies to give priority to mental health talks in the workplace.

bouncy ball sad face

Among some companies carrying out good mental health practices, you’ll find Thames Water and Aviva. Thames Water are promoting mental health first aid courses, and Aviva are encouraging members of the workforce to take part in e-learning modules to help them identify, as well as self-identify, when people are suffering from mental health trauma.

How can companies help their employers deal with mental health?

Reports from both England and Wales suggest that an estimated 1 in 8 adults with a mental health problem are receiving treatments. This means 87.5% of people who have reported needing mental health support are not receiving the help they need. This needs to change.

One thing companies can do to help deal with mental health in the workplace is ask themselves: How accessible is treatment here? And, what support systems are in place to help with anxiety, burnout and depression?

Raise awareness with training and support networks  

For starters, and perhaps most importantly, the first step any company should take to combat the stigma of mental health is to help their staff become more aware of what mental health problems are and how they are manifested.

You can integrate mental health awareness into your staff training programme. Similar to Aviva and Thames Water, this could mean having e-learning courses or monthly gatherings where staff can learn how to recognise the signs and symptoms of mental health issues and learning how to deal with mental health matters.

What’s more, why not take advantage of big dates such as National Mental Health Day. Organise an event at the office where key information about anxiety helplines and mental health matters can be discussed.

Use your resources

Most companies have newsletters. In each newsletter, a column could be dedicated to encouraging staff to avoid any self-destructive behaviours in the workplace. For example, employees should be advised not to overwork themselves because they think it makes them look better.

The column should provide links to mental health awareness sites, or alternatively, to the company’s own e-learning platform for mental health if they so choose to develop one.

Likewise, pretty much every company now has Wi-Fi! So, encourage staff to check out mental health webinars too for advice and guidance.

unhappy women, head in hands

Mindfulness meditation  

Many companies encourage staff to participate in wellness activities now. For example, meditation sessions or even corporate yoga classes. WeWork, for example, organise an array of wellness events for members of their co-working space.

Any kind of activity that enables relaxation, switching off or de-stressing should be encouraged among staff – even if it’s a 10-minute Tai-Chi session in the office reception!

Consider environmental factors

Toxic working environments can be corrosive to our mental health. Have a quiet spot where people can go to have a break from their computer screens and the buzz of the office workspace.

While not all companies have the budget to have a common room or lunch space away from the main office, if this is the case, staff should be encouraged to leave their office desk at lunchtime, rather than crunching away at their sandwich while ploughing through emails. The brain needs a break, no matter how much work is left to do.

Encourage group activities

Group activities, similar to the wellness activities mentioned above, are a great way to help staff loosen up a bit. Having a staff sports team can help with group dynamics. Team sports and games can help create a certain level of intimacy between colleagues, which is a great way to develop a good rapport in the workplace.

While it isn’t necessarily professional to discuss personal issues throughout the day at work, it’s great if members of staff feel like they can open up to colleagues for advice for guidance.  

Group discussions or 1-to-1 support

If you’d rather not people discuss their problems in the middle of the client meeting, organise set meetings for staff to open up about changes they think will help with their wellbeing in the workplace. With this in mind, consider the fact that some people prefer open discussions, some people prefer privacy. Both should be catered for.

Personal and open support like this shows staff that they are not alone in their struggle.

Find out what helps your employees to stay motivated and engaged

FTSE 100 companies that prioritise employee engagement and wellbeing outperform the rest of the FTSE 100 by 10 per cent.

If managers need any more convincing to start creating brighter futures for mental health sufferers in the workplace, here they have it.

What are we doing to help raise mental health awareness?

Perkbox launched their Employee Support Hub this year, which offers round the clock impartial and confidential advice to those who need mental health support. The hub offers an assortment of services, which employees can pick and choose from to suit their needs, all offering ways to tackle emotional and mental wellbeing problems.

The idea behind the hub is to be accessible to all – for every type of mental health issue, and for every support preference too. Perkbox are well aware that what works for one individual won’t necessarily help another.

The hub even caters for those with visual, hearing and speech impairments. Nobody is left alone, everyone gets a chance to seek help.

Of course, it’s true that some people will require much more than a call or webinar to help. But we’ve thought about that too: users have the option to upgrade to face-to-face sessions.

Whichever type of session you choose, you’re guaranteed to be communicating with a qualified therapist. The hub isn’t harvested by any old person – all the staff are qualified and trained to deal with problems involving stress, depression, and anxiety. These problems don’t necessarily have to be work related either, they could be to do with your domestic life, debt management or just your general health struggles.

If you’re not sure about these modern dial-in services, don’t worry – we get it. You can try a demo before signing up to anything your uncomfortable with. We just want to help.

Team huddle

Is the end in sight?

There is still a lot of progress to be made. The main thing companies can work towards is encouraging people to seek help.

While the stigma surrounding mental health is slowly but surely breaking down, many are still afraid to open up about their issues. We can make a change though, whether that’s through having your own hub like Perkbox, or starting your own mini-campaign to help raise awareness at your office.

Whatever your company chooses to do, do something. You might just save a life, never mind a job.

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