mental health

Mental Health in the Workplace

Mental health has become a global talking point. Mental illness in its various forms are extremely prevalent in modern society, with many people suffering in silence as they struggle through their daily lives. Shocking incidents of drug abuse, suicide and mass shootings almost always have at their root a person who  suffered from a serious mental illness. 

One in every four people in America suffers from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year and many of them have more than one form of mental illness.

Needless to say, the unprecedented strains of the Covid-19 pandemic have made matters worse.

Millions of workers are struggling with mental health issues and employers must find a way to address the issue if they want to continue to operate their business at previous levels. 

What is the Definition of Mental Illness? 

The American Psychiatric Association defines mental illness as ‘’health conditions involving changes in emotion, thinking or behavior (or a combination of these). Mental illnesses are associated with distress and/or problems functioning in social, work or family activities.’’

Although general awareness about mental illness has been increasing, how it affects workers and workplaces is still not fully appreciated.

Why it’s important to raise mental health awareness

Mental health is a tricky issue that needs a delicate approach. It’s a fact of modern life and talking about it at work cannot be avoided. Raising mental health awareness can:

  • Help reduce the unnecessary and antiquated stigma around mental illnesses, which to a large extent is perpetuated through a lack of proper understanding. People need a better understanding of mental illnesses and what causes them (that it’s not anyone’s fault, that it shouldn’t demean anyone). As people gain more in-depth understanding, the stigma surrounding mental illness will slowly abate.
  • Once the stigma has been addressed, employees will be more willing to seek help because they know they won’t be judged.
  • Help workers understand how mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, bipolar, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and eating disorders can affect individuals and develop empathy for people suffering with these challenges and begin to treat them with kindness. 

While raising mental health awareness is important, it’s only a first step. Companies must take concrete action to help employees with their mental health issues and create a healthy environment where workers can thrive. 

Also, it’s a common mistake to think that only serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia affect individuals so seriously that they can’t do their work properly and that these illnesses seldom show up in the workplace. On the contrary, mental health ailments like depression and anxiety are common in work situations. They are very debilitating and can seriously impact a person’s productivity and stability.

Factors that lead to mental health problems in the workplace

Inadequate Health and Safety Policies

Workplace health and safety policies are there to protect the well-being of employees and any visitors to the premises. 

A general policy will set out a commitment to safe working conditions, considering the terrain, materials, and equipment employees work with. If workplace accidents happen frequently, safety procedures are inadequate and will contribute to the stress and anxiety of workers even if they don’t express it. 

A workplace that is cramped, poorly lit or ventilated, or unsanitary can lead to health issues for workers. When concerns about these issues go unanswered, it increases workers’ stress.

Workplaces with poor health and safety policies must realize that their omission directly contributes to the mental health challenges their workers are experiencing.

Poor Management Practices

Poor management practices are known to lead to stress in the workplace. Heavy workloads, which can be attributed to poor management, combined with poor relationships between subordinates and managers, contribute to mental health issues at work. Stress at the workplace leads to absenteeism, with many workers giving a reason other than a mental health issue for being absent from work.

Difficult relationships with management can lead to mental health problems for both workers and management.

Lack of Clear Leadership

Leaders who don’t let employees know what direction the business is heading in and withhold important information that people suspect may affect them, contribute directly to feelings of insecurity, irritability, and nervousness. It can be downright terrifying to work for leadership that lacks direction and transparency. High anxiety levels are a natural result of directionless leadership.

Organizational Change

Changes within an organization can have a severe impact on mental health, especially if the person thinks their job is at risk. Restructuring and downsizing are two prime examples. 

Job insecurity can put people under unbearable strain that can result in mental health issues. Research shows that even those staff members who were not at risk of job loss experienced an increased rate of mental illness, sickness, absence, and disability.

Lack of Support for Employees

Managers and supervisors who don’t ensure that employees have all the resources they need to do their work properly and excel, contribute directly to worker stress and frustration. If it continues over a long time, the pressure can eventually manifest in depression or other mental health problems.

When workers feel unsupported it can have many adverse effects: 

  • Stress – which can lead to fatigue, depression, burnout and anxiety
  • Conflict
  • Increased absenteeism
  • Loss of productivity
  • Increased risk of mistakes, accidents, and injuries
Performance pressure

The expectation that employees constantly perform at their peak puts unreasonable pressure on them. It leads to an increase in workload and work hours, added stress, and emotional exhaustion.

Employees under constant performance pressure feel that they have to perform at a high level all the time. This is common at many organizations despite research that shows that although performance pressure can motivate some individuals to perform at high levels, it undermines others and puts them under unnecessary stress.

Research has shown that some individuals experience performance pressure as a threat. Needless to say, experiencing a threat contributes to stress, which, if prolonged, can cause mental health issues.

Job Insecurity

Millions of workers across the world have lost their jobs due to COVID-19, and the pandemic is still a major threat to job security for many employees in 2021. 

The specter of automation is also causing anxiety over possible job losses. By the mid-2030s, one-third of all jobs could face the risk of being automated, according to a report from PwC.

The thought of not being able to pay the bills and take care of families is enough to impact anyone’s mental health.

The Effect of Mental Health Issues in the Workplace

Mental health problems have serious consequences for enterprises and individual employees. Employee performance, productivity, absenteeism, and staff turnover are all affected by employee mental health status. 

Lost productivity as a result of two of the most common mental disorders, anxiety and depression, costs the global economy US$ 1 trillion each year. Research suggests that major depression alone is costing employers $31 billion to $51 billion per year in lost productivity.

Poor Mental Health in the Workplace Come at a Great Cost to Organizations
  • Higher Health Insurance 

Providing mental health care drives up insurance costs meaning higher expenditure for employers. Research shows that an employed person with major depression accrues average annual health care costs of $10,836. A person without major depression has an average annual health care cost of $4,584. These figures are for 2016.

Research has also shown that mental health conditions can exacerbate some chronic conditions, which doubles the psychological and financial burden.

  • Absenteeism

Work-related stress and psychosocial issues lead to increased absenteeism. Researchers have calculated that each case of stress-related ill health leads to an average of 30.9 working days lost.

The presence of a mental health disorder can cause employees to experience thoughts and emotions that make it impossible for them to interact properly with co-workers. As a result, they stay away from work, which means a loss of productivity for the company. Depression is a common cause of absenteeism, with sufferers missing on average 27 working days per year.   


Presenteeism refers to being physically present at work, but mentally absent. These employees are at work, but their performance is subpar due to their inability to follow orders, concentrate, pay attention to detail, and communicate effectively. For the workplace this means a drop in productivity and missed deadlines.

Studies in Europe have found presenteeism is a precursor for poor mental health in the future. Presenteeism is very difficult to measure, but some estimates suggest that its impact may be five times greater than the costs of absenteeism alone. 

There are many valid reasons why an employee might arrive at work in spite of being sick: 

  • They worry that they might lose their job.
  • Their work will fall behind, so when they get back to work, there will be even more work to do.
  • They feel they can’t miss important meetings or company events.
  • No one else can take over their tasks in their absence. 

Creating a better workplace

It’s incumbent on employers to be vigilant about the mental health of their workers. In addition to working towards removing the stigma around mental health, managers and supervisors need training to support employees with mental illness. A simple step like giving an employee a day off when they are obviously struggling can go a long way.

Make it clear to everyone in the office that their mental health is important to the company. According to the Mental Health at Work report, employees wanted mental health training, easy access to information about mental health resources, and a more open and supportive culture for mental health at work. Companies can use the findings of this report to create a mental health support system.

How Employers Can Support Mental Health in the Workplace

Create a Culture that is Open to Mental Health Issues

Create a workplace culture that educates everyone about mental health and provides a safe space to be honest about mental health issues. Create a mental health friendly culture by being open about the issue and encouraging managers to feel comfortable to provide mental health guidance, and encouraging employees to feel comfortable to talk to managers when needed.

Nick Tzitzon, executive vice president of marketing and communications at SAP calls it “building a culture of psychological safety.”

When employees are sure that their organizational culture is accepting and supportive of mental health issues, the stigma around mental health will diminish and individuals will be more willing to seek help when they need it. 

Provide an Employee Assistance Program (EAP)

This is a basic strategy to support employee mental wellness. It’s a voluntary and confidential service to help employees at all levels deal with personal issues that affect their well-being and prevent them from performing their tasks optimally.

The EAP should provide 24/7 phone assistance that goes through directly to a counselor. If more long-term assistance is needed, the EAP should provide referrals to professional counseling services. The service should provide crisis intervention and have professional counselors ready to go to your premises in case of a crisis. A good EAP will have drug and substance abuse experts on hand as most cases involve substance abuse problems.

Unfortunately, EAPs are not popular, and most employees don’t make use of the benefits. Be sure to find ways to promote your EAP in a positive manner and emphasize that it’s a free service and confidential.

Provide Training to Managers and Supervisors

This training should be of a high caliber so leaders can spot when someone is in distress and know how to handle the situation firmly but with sensitivity.

If mental health training is compulsory for all company leaders, it may help to create a more empathetic working environment. This may lead to a more relaxed working environment, which is good for mental wellness. Good training could also help to prevent when a mental health issue escalates. 

Include Mental Health Coverage in Your Health Plan

It is common knowledge that most people don’t seek mental health assistance because their health insurance doesn’t cover it. For most people, mental health help is financially unattainable.

As a responsible employer, make sure that your company health plan includes adequate mental health coverage with no or low out-of-pocket costs, or consider subsidizing it.

You could refer to the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act, which requires insurance coverage for mental health conditions (including substance use disorders) to be no more restrictive than insurance coverage for other medical conditions.

Tackle Mental Health Illness by Addressing Mental Health Wellness

Don’t forget to promote mental well-being. This will go a long way to prevent mental health issues.

  • Provide a space where employees can relax for a few minutes and make sure that everyone understands it’s okay to take the time.
  • Consider subsidizing clinical screenings for signs of depression so employees don’t need to take off work to find the service themselves. 
  • If possible, make space for activities like meditation, yoga classes, and mindfulness training.
  • Provide employees with the option to work some days from home if they prefer it. 
  • Provide mental health self-assessment tools.
  • Remind employees of the usefulness of apps that promote sleep and help to address stress. 
  • Make it possible for employees to benefit from their leave by not overloading them with work. Many employees don’t take leave because their workload doesn’t allow for it.
  • Provide opportunities for employees to socialize and have fun on a regular basis. 
Make Special Provisions for the Covid-19 Pandemic Fallout

The isolation caused by the pandemic and the demands of changing to online work have brought millions of workers all worldwide to the brink of mental breakdown. That sounds melodramatic, but the figures don’t lie. For instance, a quarter of employees in the UK say they have reached a psychological breaking point. 

Whatever work arrangement they decide on going forward, companies must be very vigilant about the strain their workers are facing. Organizations that don’t find ways to ease matters for their employees will definitely have retention problems. 

A 2020 study of 1,000 American workers reported that 80% said they would consider leaving their current position for a job that supported employee mental health. This finding is supported by other studies.

Final Thoughts

The prevalence of mental health issues in the workplace is a reality. To succeed, organizations must support employees with their mental health conditions. It’s incumbent on workplace leaders to create work cultures that destigmatize mental health. It begins by acknowledging that they and the rest of senior management are not exempt from depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions. It affects everyone on every level in organizations and must be viewed with compassion, empathy and kindness.

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