Woman looking stressed in an office on her phone holding a coffee

Supporting mental health in the workplace

Posted on: July 29, 2022

The mental wellbeing of employees across the UK – as well as the rest of the world – has been thrown into the spotlight over the past two years. The physical and mental toll of the global coronavirus pandemic, together with the huge disruption it caused for both the personal and working lives of the population, cannot be understated. In fact, it’s likely that we are still unaware of its full impact.

Closures, redundancies and furlough, a switch to homeworking, the intense responsibility and sacrifice demanded from frontline workers, balancing home-schooling with work – added to the pressures and stresses already complicit in the everyday workplace – ushered in what many have since called a mental health crisis.

According to Champion Health’s The Workplace Health Report: 2022, instances of poor mental health in the workplace are widespread:

  • Almost 35% of employees report that the stress they experience at work is having a negative impact on them.
  • Overall, 65% of professionals are experiencing moderate-to-high levels of work-related stress.
  • Approximately 60% of employees feel anxious and just over half feel low in mood.
  • Nearly 1 in 4 employees met the criteria for ‘clinically relevant symptoms’ of anxiety and depression, with poor mental health impacting productivity for 1 in 5 employees.

Mental health and work are intricately related. After all, considering how much time we spend engaged in work over the course of a week – for many of us, it’s the majority – it’s unsurprising that it has the potential to significantly impact mental health. 

Poor mental health is having a noticeable, and worrying, impact on the lives of the nation’s workforce. As well as causing issues for both an individual’s life and wider public health, it also has a direct and detrimental impact upon businesses.

What is the difference between mental health and mental illness?

It’s critical that employers and employees alike understand the differences between mental health and mental illness in order to support both themselves and others.

All of us have mental health. The term refers to our psychological and emotional wellbeing – which can impact our thoughts, feelings and behaviours – and is influenced by life experiences. When we have good mental health, we are more able to cope with the ups and downs of life, realise our potential, contribute to our communities, learn well and work well, and build relationships with others. Mental health exists on a continuum and so it fluctuates; we may experience varying moods and emotions over the course of a day, even over the course of an hour.

Mental illness refers to a wide range of mental health conditions, often caused by genes or brain chemistry, which also affect emotions, thoughts and behaviours. As signs and symptoms of mental illness vary, so too does the impact that mental illness can have on a person’s life. Mental illness becomes a cause for concern when it causes frequent stress and affects an individual’s ability to function. Mental illnesses are recognised conditions that can be professionally diagnosed and treated. Examples include anxiety disorders, depression, eating disorders, addiction, mood disorders, psychotic disorders – such as schizophrenia, and personality disorders – such as bipolar disorder.

While they are distinct, consistent poor mental health can lead to mental illness – which is why it’s essential to take steps to support and promote positive mental health.

Why is supporting mental health in the workplace important?

Wellbeing in work environments has never been more important. Organisations are only as strong as their people: without a healthy and productive team, a business cannot function effectively.

There is a wealth of research indicating that positively managing mental health not only boosts employee engagement, but has wider benefits for everyone. Likewise, failing to support mental health at work can result in individuals struggling with:

  • Productivity and motivation
  • Mood swings and uncontrollable outbursts
  • Excessive fear, worry and anxiety
  • Reduced morale
  • Issues with deadlines and pressurised tasks
  • Presenteeism, absenteeism and sickness absence
  • Difficulties with sleeping and completing everyday tasks
  • Substance abuse

As with physical health, employers have a duty and a responsibility to support the mental health of their employees. While an employee can be dismissed on the grounds of mental health – in the event that it renders them unable to do their job properly, and following a thorough and official process – it should be considered a last resort. There are other ways to address mental health issues; for example, involving occupational health can help to identify reasonable adjustments in order to support an employee and help manage their mental health.

Mentally healthy workplaces

As part of their mentally healthy workplaces scheme, mental health charity Mind urge businesses to take strategic action to address poor mental health in the workplace.

They advise that organisations adopt a three-pronged approach as best practice, each part of which is explored in the next few sections.

Promote wellbeing 

Employees should feel empowered to voice ideas, understand their value, and contribute to decision-making exercises, and effective, empathetic managers who promote open dialogue are key to this. Discussions of mental health and wellbeing not only drive employee engagement and improve mental health awareness, but reduce stigma. As a result, it helps to establish an environment where team members are more likely to disclose mental health issues, and seek help, earlier. These efforts should also include building positive working relationships, promoting a better work-life balance, encouraging socialising, supporting flexible working days, and any other measures that improve overall wellbeing.

Tackle the causes of mental ill health 

Employers must identify, and remedy, risk factors that can lead to declining mental health. These may include addressing aspects such as: poor working environments; unrealistic deadlines and expectations; highly pressurised tasks; excessive hours and insufficient breaks; aspects of personal life outside of work; poor communication or fractured relationships; lack of support; lone working; job insecurity; change management, and more. Strategies such as risk assessments; regular supervision; open discussions with employees regarding their own needs; establishing good working practice and healthy boundaries; and implementing coping mechanisms can all help.

Support staff with mental health problems 

Line managers must be trained to work in collaboration with employees to develop personal action plans which clarify triggers and detail intervention strategies. Clear organisational policies should exist which contain information regarding reasonable adjustments and what types of support are available. Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs), occupational health referrals, psychological therapies, and signposting to external professional health services and providers can all feature in staff support packages to tackle poor mental health.

Investing in these approaches – and promoting them at company-wide level – demonstrates a commitment to supporting employee mental health and addressing the negative impacts and causes of mental ill health. This government website contains a repository of information relating to health and safety in the workplace, including supporting good mental health.

Support your employees and develop as a compassionate, high-performing leader

Are you keen to champion workplace mental health and help your team to succeed?

Combine deep understanding of business practice with the psychological insights needed to better manage and support others with the University of Wolverhampton’s online MBA Psychology programme.

Accredited by the Association for Business Psychology (ABP), this flexible course has been designed to equip tomorrow’s business leaders with a practical toolkit to excel in people management. Your studies will encompass the psychology of learning; personality differences and mental health at work; organisational strategy; operations and supply management; marketing; sustainability; and much more.

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