Nowadays, pretty much everyone acknowledges the importance of mental health. Seeking help for issues is becoming destigmatized, and the science of wellbeing is a common interest for many people. But how does this all translate to one of the most stressful areas of life: the workplace?
Mental health at work consists of psychological, emotional and social wellbeing in the shared work environment. These factors directly affect job performance and satisfaction. For example, psychological factors may include stress levels and job insecurity. Emotional factors may include employee morale, and engagement. Social factors may include team dynamics and support from management.
Sadly, mental health problems can make it difficult for a person to manage workplace stress as well as their overall health. Mental health is a necessary part of being productive at work, too. Here are some ways a person's work may be affected by mental health concerns.
It's pretty well known that mental health and work performance are linked. If you're feeling stressed, anxious, or depressed, it's going to be tough to focus on your tasks and do your best work. A person may have difficulty prioritising tasks, meeting deadlines, as well as learning and adapting to change. However, what some people don't realize is just how big of an impact poor mental health can have on workplace safety.
Not only can it make it hard to concentrate and remember things, but it can also lead to more mistakes and accidents. One study in Australia found that moderate and high psychological distress both increased the odds ratio of having a work accident to 1.4.  This is a huge increase in the likelihood of having an accident compared with the baseline of mentally healthy people.
That's why it's so important for employers to create a supportive environment that encourages employees to take care of their mental health. By doing so, they can help prevent errors, injuries, and accidents from happening in the first place.
Poor mental health can have a profound effect on someone's ability to communicate effectively with others. When someone is struggling with their mental wellbeing, they may find it difficult to relate to others and understand their perspectives. This can lead to misunderstandings and conflict in the workplace.
Furthermore, poor mental health may cause people to become anxious or suspicious, which can lead to outbursts of verbal aggression or even violence. While mental health issues can be difficult to overcome, it is important that staff feel able to seek help from a professional if they are struggling. With the right support, they can learn to manage their mental health and improve their communication skills.
It's no secret that mental health problems can lead to absenteeism at work. In fact, mental health issues are one of the leading causes of absenteeism. Employees who are experiencing mental health issues may have physical symptoms, such as headaches and tiredness, that make it difficult for them to regularly attend work. In addition, worried or sad employees may believe that they don't belong at work or that their workplace isn't friendly. As a result, they're less likely to turn up.
Of course, mental health problems don't just impact the individual; they can also lead to increased stress levels for colleagues and managers, which can affect attendance in the broader organization. If employees are struggling with mental health issues, they should be helped to feel confident in talking to their employer about taking a mental health day or working from home.
Presenteeism is when a person shows up to work despite being incapacitated in some way. This most often leads to issues with job performance.
According to a recent study, about one in five adults in the United States suffer from a mental illness.  And yet, despite the prevalence of mental illness, there is still a lot of stigma around the topic. This stigma means many feel ashamed to open up about their struggles and choose instead to mask the symptoms, pushing through and working, even on their worst days.
Many people suffering from mental illness also feel like they can't take time off work because they won't be able to make ends meet if they miss a day or two of pay. After all, sick pay for most professions in the US and UK is not enough to feed a family.
They may also be anxious about the potential consequences of sick days due to heavy self-criticism or anxiety around appeasing those in power. As a consequence, they go to work even when they aren't feeling well. This might result in lower productivity and employee engagement. Employees who are dealing with mental health issues may be more likely to experience job dissatisfaction and feel less motivated to perform their best. They may find it difficult to maintain focus or persist in the face of challenges.
Mental wellbeing is essential for a productive workforce. When employees are struggling with mental health issues, it can lead to a decline in motivation, ability, and therefore productivity. A variety of factors can contribute to this, including cognitive impairment, conflicts or strained connections, difficulties meeting deadlines or performance objectives, and absence due to mental health-related appointments or hospitalizations.
Depression alone causes 200 million lost workdays every year.  This is a shocking number, especially when we take into account that depression is not as prevalent as anxiety disorders.  Companies need to do more to promote mental health and support employees who are dealing with mental health issues. This includes providing resources and creating an environment that is conducive to mental wellbeing. Only by addressing these issues head-on can companies hope to boost productivity and create a healthy workplace.
Think about a workplace as an ecosystem. If one person is badly affected, everybody else feels it in some way. The old individualist idea that competition breeds success is not accurate in a team scenario. Workplaces have to ensure that every member is taken care of.
Workplace mental health problems present several risk factors. A person may have impaired judgment, lack of concern for their own safety (and that of others), poor concentration when handling dangerous equipment, or emotional inconsistencies that result in impaired perception. As mentioned previously, stress can have a huge effect on the likelihood of workplace accidents so organizations should consider stress management education among other mental health policies.
Not only does mental health affect how well we do our jobs but it can also affect co-workers, management, and even the general public. Think about a time a customer-facing staff member has been rude - it can sometimes leave a negative imprint for the rest of the day, or even put you off the organization as a whole. Conversely, think of a time you've worked with a team of people who just seemed to "click". The psychological climate of a place is often the most important factor for customers and colleagues alike.
Of course, mental health affects our cognitive abilities including attention, memory, motivation, and empathy. However, it can also have a knock-on effect on physical health. In fact, those with high stress levels are at increased risk of heart disease and stroke. These negative effects can seriously impact a person's ability to do their job.
However, as mental health difficulties are common, these issues are all around us. The Director-General of the World Health Organization publicly stated: "Everyone’s life touches someone with a mental health condition. Good mental health translates to good physical health.” 7
This one is tricky to answer as many people suffer from mental health issues without it being reported or necessarily interfering with their work. For some, they may instead give everything to their work and then feel completely drained at home.
To know whether their work is being affected, employees should reflect on their own mental health in comparison with other factors such as job satisfaction, motivation, and achievements. If they notice these factors take a dip at the same time as encountering struggles, then it is likely their work is being affected by their mental health. In cases such as these, an employee should have mental health support available to them, which includes access to recovery time or counseling.
Depression, just like any mental or physical health problem, can have an effect on productivity. However, with adequate time, support, and self-compassion, a person can regain their full capabilities (and for some, they may gain insight in terms of supporting others with mental health troubles.)
Just about any mental health condition can cause a person to feel incapable of working. For some, severe depression or anxiety can make it simply too hard to attend the office or show up to an important meeting. For many, their mental health fluctuates, causing them to feel much better on some days than others. Workplaces need to bear in mind that for some, it isn't black and white whether they can attend work. Some flexibility is needed to achieve the best outcome, e.g. remote working, part-time hours, or flexible shifts.
Stress is a full-body experience as well as a mental state, ranging from spiraling thoughts to heart palpitations. As much as short bursts of stress can be a productivity booster, long-term stress drains a person's energy and endangers their health. This is, of course, something that reduces productivity. However, in a truly supportive workplace, productivity should not be viewed as the most important factor in employee mental health.
By offering an employee assistance program or free mental health counseling, a workplace can reduce its staff's stress levels and reassure them that they matter as people, not just as workers.
Anxiety and stress are similar in many ways. A tiny bit can be motivating, but regular doses have terrible effects on people. When employees feel anxious most of the time, they are more prone to mistakes, absenteeism, and impaired thinking. This is terrible for both the individual and the company. Supporting mental health in the workplace can reduce the incidences of employees developing anxiety disorders - boosting people's wellbeing in their personal and professional life.
Would your workplace dismiss an employee for breaking their arm? Hopefully not!
Not only would it be unethical and illegal to dismiss an employee for having a mental health issue, it just wouldn't make sense. After all, it is estimated that 26% of Americans suffer from a mental health issue in a given year. 8 Unless a company plans to replace more than a quarter of its staff every year, the best course of action would be to carry out person-centered policies that support mental health.
1 Hilton & Whiteford, 2010 https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00420-010-0555-x
2 CDC, About Mental Health - How common are mental illnesses? 2021 https://www.cdc.gov/mentalhealth/learn/index.htm#:~:text=1%20in%205%20Americans%20will,illness%20in%20a%20given%20year.&text=1%20in%205%20children%2C%20either,a%20seriously%20debilitating%20mental%20illness.&text=1%20in%2025%20Americans%20lives,bipolar%20disorder%2C%20or%20major%20depression.
Gurchiek, 2019 https://www.shrm.org/hr-today/news/hr-news/pages/the-paralysis-of-depression-in-the-workplace.aspx#:~:text=Depression%20is%20estimated%20to%20cause,loss%20among%20working%2Dage%20adults.
5 healthline, Relationship Between ADHD and Anxiety, 2016 https://www.healthline.com/health/adhd-and-anxiety
6 Moran, 2016 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26963369/
7 WHO, WHO highlights urgent need to transform mental health and mental health care, https://www.who.int/news/item/17-06-2022-who-highlights-urgent-need-to-transform-mental-health-and-mental-health-care
8 John Hopkins Medicine, Mental Health Disorder Statistics, https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/mental-health-disorder-statistics#:~:text=An%20estimated%2026%25%20of%20Americans,disorder%20in%20a%20given%20year.