Tackling stress, anxiety and depression in the workplace

Posted on: July 6, 2023

While they might not be entirely surprising, the figures regarding poor mental health and wellness in the workplace are nonetheless a huge cause for concern.

Recent statistics indicate the scale of the issue in our modern workplaces:

  •  1 in 6 people experience mental health problems at work
  • 12 billion working days are lost each year to depression and anxiety
  • Poor workplace mental health costs UK employers around £56 billion every year through a combination of staff turnover, presenteeism and absenteeism – a 25% increase since 2019
  • 17% of employees will struggle with a diagnosed mental illness this year.

What is behind the steep rise in mental health issues in the work environment? The answer is neither simple to pinpoint or straightforward to address. Experts point to a number of likely contributory causes, including: increasing levels of loneliness, which rose steeply during the pandemic; burnout from stressful jobs and an inability to ‘switch off’; anxieties about the world we live in, such as the cost-of-living crisis, war and the climate emergency; unhealthy modern lifestyles and a greater prevalence of long-term, physical health conditions.

In better news, public and individual awareness of mental health – and conversations about mental health – appear to be increasing, and much progress has been made to destigmatise and acknowledge the realities of living with poor mental health. Tackling workplace stress and mental health not only has a positive impact on employee wellbeing, but also addresses a number of related challenges for employers – from lost productivity to poor retention rates.

Can you spot the signs of stress? Do you know how to adequately support colleagues whose workplace mental health has declined? Does your organisation go far enough in the name of health promotion?

How can you identify depression in the workplace?

There is an important distinction to be made between low mood and depression. While it can often be difficult to tell as many of the presenting symptoms overlap, the difference is that a low mood often gets better after a few days or weeks.

According to the NHS website, there are a range of symptoms to look out for and certain differences between the two:

  • Low mood: feeling sad, anxious, panicky, angry, frustrated, more tired than usual and/or an inability to sleep, experiencing low confidence or self-esteem.
  • Depression: not getting any enjoyment out of life, feeling hopeless, an inability to concentrate on everyday things, having suicidal thoughts or thoughts about harming yourself.

Symptoms of depression may not always be visible, and an individual may also be unwilling or unable to open up to someone else about what they’re going through. Together with the behaviours detailed above, managers should keep an eye out for variations of the following:

  • a noticeable change in character or demeanour – for example, someone who is usually chatty or outgoing becoming more reclusive
  • absenteeism or presenteeism
  • decline in work performance, focus and engagement with work
  • avoidance of others, at work and also in their personal life
  • loss of appetite and interest in self-care
  •  feelings of guilt or worthlessness
  • references to self-harm.

What can managers do to help employees who are depressed?

Many workplaces are now actively investing in comprehensive mental health support services for their employees.

As a manager who is concerned about a team member or co-worker, the first step is generally to try and have a conversation with them about how they are and if there are any issues they are facing. Due to the often sensitive and personal nature of such conversations, some managers may wish to contact their human resource departments or occupational health (OH) teams for support. Employee assistance programmes (EAP) can also provide practical advice and support on issues that might be impacting a team member’s wellbeing and performance.

While some employees may cite work-related stress as a contributing factor, others may also be dealing with situations in their personal lives. Where relevant and within reason, tackling the underlying causes of work-related stress – for example, a heavy workload, unsafe work environment or workplace bullying – is essential.

Signposting to professional mental health support services – or encouraging them to speak with their GP, who can refer them on to appropriate services – is key.

How do you promote good mental health in the workplace?

Safeguarding employee mental health should be a top priority for all managers. Taking an active role in promoting mental wellness applies to all of us, not just those with specific mental health conditions.

Leaders and managers should be forthcoming and transparent about the importance of good mental health and their desire to see team members taking steps to keep themselves and others healthy. Providing a listening ear, and creating a safe, non-judgemental space for any team members struggling with stress, anxiety, depression or any issue, is highly valuable.

Other tried-and-tested strategies for managing stress and maintaining mental wellness include:

  • Regular physical activity and exercise
  • Encouraging good work-life balance, including creating dedicated workspaces within the home (if working remotely) to maintain physical and mental separation between work and home life
  • Taking breaks from work and using annual leave allowances
  • Deep breathing exercises
  • Getting sufficient sleep
  • Mindfulness techniques
  • Getting out in nature
  • Maintaining a healthy, balanced diet
  • Socialising and connecting with others, including finding someone that the individual does feel comfortable speaking to about any issues
  • Seeking professional medical advice.

The Mental Health Foundation website provides a wealth of additional information, resources, initiatives and strategies for those interested in exploring this topic.

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