How can Work Affect Mental Health?
A 40-hour working week adds up to almost a quarter of your life every seven days. It takes up a lot of your energy, concentration, motivation and time. Given the influence that work has on our lives, it’s no wonder that your professional life can have a significant effect on your mental health – in both good and bad ways. Given that around one in four people will have a mental health issue in their lifetime, it’s probably more common in your workplace than you think.
This guide takes a look at the topic of mental health at work, including:
- The positive and negative effects of work on mental health
- The signs that work is damaging your mental health
- How to discuss mental health issues with your employer
- How to look after your mental health at work
Positive Impacts of Work on Mental Health
Although workplaces can cause increases in stress and other mental health conditions like anxiety and depression, it’s important to note that employment can also have a positive impact on our wellbeing.
Work gives us a valuable purpose in life, motivating us to get up in the morning and create or achieve something. As social animals, humans also require that daily interaction with the outside world. Work generally allows us to engage socially every day (unless we are working from home), something which is especially important to people who live alone or are otherwise isolated or lonely. The financial benefits of working life also have positive effects on our wellbeing. Money isn’t everything, but having a regular income can reduce financial stress and allow us to engage in activities we enjoy and buy things that we want, depending on how much we earn.
Relevant research in the area confirms that there can be a positive correlation between employment and strong mental health. A systematic meta-review of 11 studies published in Australasian Psychiatry said:
“The available evidence supports the proposition that work can be beneficial for an employee's wellbeing, particularly if good-quality supervision is present and there are favourable workplace conditions.”
It also said:
“The benefits of work are most apparent when compared with the well-documented detrimental mental health effects of unemployment.”
The key to maximising these benefits is the workplace itself. The modern world is placing greater emphasis on improving work life balance for employees, introducing things like flexible working hours and working from home. Overall, employees’ responses to these shifts seems to be positive; one survey from FlexJobs found that 97% of people say that having a more flexible job would have a “huge” or “positive” impact on their quality of life.
Negative Impacts of Work on Mental Health
The workplace does bring important benefits to our wellbeing, but the balance can all too easily slide and lead to negative outcomes. Work can be a common causes of depression or severe increases in your stress levels.
Workplace mental health issues affect a huge number of people each year, as relevant statistics confirm:
- 822,000 people suffered from work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2020/21 (source)
- In 2020/21, anxiety, depression and stress accounted for 50% of all work-related ill health cases (source)
- 96% of workers work longer than their contracted hours. The biggest reason is because they feel that it is expected of them by employers (source)
- 55% of workers say their employment has an adverse effect on their mental health (source)
- 23% of people drink alcohol in order to try and forget about problems and stresses at work (source)
- 71% of the people would worry about telling their employer if they had a mental health condition, for fear of getting a negative response (source)
The causes of mental health problems at work can be varied. It could be that you’ve been working extra-long hours or that your workload has increased significantly. You might be running to a tight deadline for a major project, or don’t have the support you think you need to do your job to best of your ability.
Your relationships with colleagues are important too. If you’re being harassed or bullied, or the working relationship with your boss has declined, that can be the source of a decline in your enjoyment of the role and can lead to increases in your levels of stress and anxiety.
Crucially, if these issues are left to continue in the medium or long term, it often leads to deeper mental health conditions such as depression.
Dr Jeremy Broadhead, Consultant Psychiatrist at Priory Hospital Hayes Grove, on the impact of stress:
“Stress, whether physical or mental, must be taken seriously. We all recognise physical strains on our body and the damage that may be caused. For example, if we injure our knee we don't keeping running on it because it would cause further damage. We take care of it. Psychological stress, as well as being hard to bear and destructive for our lives, can damage the brain. It is too often ignored.
"Too much pressure and uncertainty at work, and difficult relationships there and at home, can cause psychological stress. As the figures show, the result can be psychiatric illness, misuse of alcohol and a change in demeanour."
How do I know if my Job is Affecting my Mental Health?
When at work, it’s important that you try to monitor your attitudes, performance and general mood. There are key indicators that might point towards the possibility that your workplace could be the root cause of a downturn in your mental health. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) lists the following as key signs of work-related stress:
- You are unable to cope with the demands of your jobs
- You are unable to control the way you do your work
- You don't receive enough information and support at work
- You are having trouble with relationships at work, or are being bullied
- You don't fully understand your role and responsibilities
- You are not engaged when your workplace is undergoing change
It’s also worth familiarising yourself with the common signs and symptoms of relevant mental health conditions:
Stress: Unable to switch off or relax, irritability, impatience and sleep disturbances.
Anxiety: Persistent sense of worry or dread, paranoia, tension, headaches and nausea.
Depression: Intense feelings of sadness, tearfulness, fatigue and low energy levels
Disclosing Mental Health Issues to an Employer
Less than three in ten employees are willing to openly speak about their mental health with their employer, but reaching out for support and lightening your psychological load is one of the most effective ways of coping with the issues you’re facing.
You could start by reaching out to a colleague or close friend first; you’ll probably be surprised by how understanding and supportive they are. When, and if, you feel ready to talk about your mental health with your boss, or other relevant figure in your workplace, the following tips can help:
Sometimes it can be difficult to find the right words in person. Writing things down can help to collect your thoughts. It might be worth emailing ahead first, giving you a foundation to start from when you do speak face-to-face.
Only disclose how much you feel comfortable with
Disclosing a mental health issue is a very personal topic, so it’s normal to feel uncomfortable bringing it up. It’s entirely your decision on how much you initially share. If you have a diagnosis from your GP, that might be a useful piece of information to share, but otherwise just touch on how you’re feeling and how it is affecting your work.
Go to the right person
Think carefully about the best person to go to. It could be your boss, or it could be someone in your HR team, who will be trained to support people experiencing mental health issues and have clear idea of what support is available to you.
Know your rights
The stigma and threat of discrimination is real, so it’s natural to be reticent about bringing up the topic of mental health in the workplace. Thankfully, the law is on your side and today, discrimination of an employee on basis of mental health is unlawful. Times are changing and you can expect a much more supportive, understanding workplace than in decades gone by.
By speaking up, you are helping yourself and others
If you do choose to speak out, your decision is positively impacting the lives of thousands of people across the UK. Each time someone accepts they aren’t OK, they encourage others to do the same and nudge employers, governments and our wider society towards change.
Dr Paul McLaren, Consultant Psychiatrist at Priory Hospital Ticehurst House, on how we perceive mental health:
"A mental health problem is no different to reporting a problem with your physical health…it just feels different. When we are depressed, we often have strong feelings of shame about how we are feeling. That is not just a psychological reaction but part of the biology of depression. Shame leads us to hiding away but hiding away makes our situation worse in the workplace and elsewhere.”
Looking after your Mental Health at Work or when Working from Home
If work is getting too much for you, there’s lots more you can do alongside speaking to your employer, to make your working life more manageable.
Know the warning signs
There are many symptoms of stress at work, but a key sign that it’s getting too much is when you are unable to manage your workload or unwind after a long day. Are you regularly taking your work home with you? Are you fretting about an upcoming deadline or presentation? These are common triggers for work-related stress, so it’s important to be aware of when they might be kicking in.
Plan out your week or day ahead and create a checklist of things that need to be completed in priority order. Give yourself enough time to complete each task and schedule regular breaks to avoid burnout. Reward yourself for completing tasks, even if it’s as simple as crossing it off your checklist.
Try some stress-busting techniques
Breathing exercises can be a great way to reduce stress and anxiety and remain clam. Take a long, deep breath while counting for 5-8 seconds, then hold it for 5-8 seconds. Repeat several times to relieve anxious/stressed feelings. This can help to re-centre you during a busy work day.
Steve Clarke, Hospital Director and Psychotherapist at Priory Hospital Roehampton, on the de-stressing Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT):
Repetitive finger tapping can sometimes help to release negative emotions such as anxiety. It has been called a psychological version of acupuncture in that it involves making contact with a number of acupuncture points.
Whilst focusing on your negative emotion, you tap on a ‘meridian’ point (the eyebrow, side of the eye, under eye, under nose, chin, collarbone, under the arm and top of the head) three to seven times, repeating your negative thought in your head. After each emotion, take a deep breath and exhale.
Exercise as much as you can
Exercise is a brilliant way to help to relieve stress, so incorporating it into your daily routine, 2–3 times a week, can be a quick way of improving your mental health at work. Try running, going to the gym or something like yoga. It takes you away from the daily grind and allows you to focus solely on your health and wellbeing. Even going for a brisk walk during your lunch hour, if you’re able to, can work wonders for your mental health, motivation and wellbeing.
The importance of a healthy diet on our physical and mental health can’t be underestimated. Try to avoid comfort eating and instead choose food that increases your energy and gives you sustainable nutrients to get you through the day.
Seek professional help
If things are getting too much and you aren’t getting the support you need at work, know that professional help is available. You can speak to your GP, call a support line or contact Priory directly for world-class private mental healthcare.
There are many effective treatments for stress, anxiety and depression that will enable you to learn ways of coping with mental health issues and allow you to manage your working life in the long-term. Remember, seeking professional help is not a sign of weakness. By seeking help, you are displaying strength, and taking the vital first step to turning your life around.
How Employers can Support Employee Mental Health
Employees can adapt their own behaviours to try and make work less stressful and damaging to their mental health, but employers have an even more important role to play. A positive workplace culture and working environment come from the very top.
It’s in the best interests of businesses to invest in positive employee mental health; not only does it reduce absenteeism and staff turnover, it even improves day-to-day productivity. In fact, research from Deloitte shows that for every £1 spent by employers on mental health interventions, they get £5 back in reduced absence, presentism and staff turnover.
Here are a few pointers for managers and employers:
Keep up communication
Keep in regular, if not daily, contact with your employees, and be honest and authentic in your communication. You might want to consider sending out daily bulletins via emails and ensure two-way communication so that employees can feel heard – especially if people are regularly working from home.
People don’t like to be left in the dark. It can lead to confusion over their role and responsibilities and can make them feel isolated or forgotten across the business. It’s important keep checking in with people to get their ideas, feedback and insights regarding their job and the general workplace, as well as how they’re holding up personally.
Dr Paul McLaren, Consultant Psychiatrist at Priory Hospital Ticehurst House, on communicating with staff:
“If you are dealing with challenging or emotive issues as a boss, don’t rely on email communication. You can misinterpret a lot in an email if you or your employees are already in an emotional state.
If you are trying to deal with a sensitive issue, then pick up the phone or make a video call. If anyone feels distant or disconnected then check it out with them directly.”
Facilitate social contact
Try to facilitate opportunities for colleagues to maintain social contact, either in person or by harnessing available technology. WhatsApp groups are a good chance for staff to communicate outside of office hours in a more informal setting. You could also put some budget aside for a morale-boosting social every few months, helping everyone to feel like their colleagues are more like friends.
Implement an employment assistance programme (EAP)
EAPs are employer-funded workplace wellbeing and counselling services that offer employees confidential counselling and advice on a wide range of work and personal issues. They are free to employees. Some EAP programmes offer 24/7 access to mental health chatbot programmes through a smartphone application and use online therapy and crisis texting programmes, as well as phone support.
An EAP is great for providing staff with reassurances that, as a business, you’re looking out for them and their wellbeing. Ultimately, it gives people access to trained professionals who can offer support when they really need it.
See how you can do better
Staff members like to know that they’re being listened to and their suggestions for improvement are being actioned. As they are the individuals who work with your company processes every day, they are well placed to provide feedback on the workplace environment and your commitment to a healthy, happy workforce.
Regularly take stock of how your staff perceive the workplace culture and how it affects their mental health. Many companies run annual surveys that quiz employees on things like their work life balance. Once you’ve collected the data - act on it! Staff who see a company that recognises its faults and looks to improve on them are more likely to enjoy their work, be invested in the company they work for and benefit from better mental health as a result.
Give staff the flexibility they want
Today, most people are able to complete their job roles perfectly well at home. Working from home was a necessity during the pandemic, but the benefits it brings to employees mean that for many, it is here to stay. In fact, it’s now one of the most desirable benefits an employer can give to their employees. Surveys show that more than two-thirds of workers want flexible working in their office, and almost half would quit their job if flexible working was not an option.
The benefits to work-life balance that come with flexible working lead to better mental health outcomes for employees. For many businesses, you can’t afford not to provide flexible working if it’s possible in your industry.