Gudrun Limbrick looks at how to deal with mental health issues that may be caused by the workplace itself.

Sadly, mental health problems are very common. They impact on a very wide variety of people — including those who appear able to cope with whatever is thrown at them — and can be very damaging despite often being written off as just a little stress. Depression, anxiety, panic attacks, alcoholism, drug dependency, eating disorders and other such issues can be extremely harmful to an individual’s wellbeing and quality of life. However, it does not stop there. Such issues can also impact on the individual’s family and home life, and can sometimes lead to a person’s life taking a downward spiral.

At work, productivity and efficiency can be affected, employee relationships can be affected, absenteeism and lateness can occur and team morale and effectiveness more generally can all be impacted by one individual having problems who is not given the right support and treatment. For these, purely financial and business, reasons alone, the mental health issues of employees are of significant concern to employers. This is aside from any moral or ethical responsibility an employer may feel they have towards the wider wellbeing of those people who work for them.

Having a job that pays the bills can impact very positively on a person’s wellbeing and ability to cope with the stresses of everyday life. Work which gives the individual self-esteem and a sense of job satisfaction can be enormously beneficial to a person’s mental health. A job in which individuals find supportive friends and a warm welcome can even be part of a recovery from pre-existing issues. There is no doubt that there is a potential positive link between employment and mental health.

However, it also works the other way around and a job can have a very negative impact on a person’s mental health or exacerbate pre-existing problems. Some mental health issues may be directly related to work such as stress brought on by a very difficult job or an impossible workload. There may be issues which are less directly related to work such as anxiety caused by a long and difficult journey to work or by not having sufficient time to undertake home caring responsibilities. And there are those issues where the link is looser such as an employee’s period of depression worsening by the negative reactions of colleagues to the illness. Some mental health issues are related to specific jobs — we can all accept that being a social worker, for example, can be stressful — while others are related simply to working. Having depression or anxiety can make working in any environment difficult for an individual.

It is clear that it is not always possible to determine what mental health problems are caused by work and which are exacerbated by, rather than caused by, the particular job or the stress of being in work in general. It can be hard for individuals themselves to understand the causes and triggers of their mental health issues and there are fine grey lines between work-related stress and life-related stress. For this reason, determining whether work is the factor or a factor or irrelevant is not always a useful way to assess the situation. Rather, it is important to focus on whether the individual can be supported more effectively while at work, whether changes to working practices can help the individual, and whether the person simply needs to take some time off work to devote time to his or her health.

However, there is some illuminating data from MIND, the mental health charity, which asked respondents specifically about workplace stress. More than one in five respondents said that they had phoned in sick to avoid work when asked about their experience of workplace stress. This is not good news for employers trying to reduce absenteeism. Further, 14% said that they had actually resigned from a job because of workplace stress with another 42% saying that they had considered resigning. In an ideal world, sitting down with a line manager and discussing these issues to find mutually acceptable ways forward may have meant that this stress could have been reduced before it got to the stage of taking sick time or leaving the job.

Of course, a very significant problem is that there is a tremendous stigma attached to mental health problems still. This can mean that employees are reluctant to tell their line managers (or even their families or doctors) about their issues. An employer may thus never have the opportunity to sit down and discuss these issues with their employees, and may never be able to work on possible solutions. Again, referring back to MIND research, 30% of employers disagreed with the statement “I would feel able to talk openly with my line manager if I was feeling stressed” and 56%��of employers said they would like to do more to improve staff wellbeing but don't feel they have the right training or guidance. There is certainly work to be done in encouraging employees to talk about mental health as an issue and in equipping line managers with appropriate training and resources to be able to respond effectively to those employees who do come forward.

I would also argue that there is often work to be done to look at work practices which may not be helping the mental health of any employees (or their managers for that matter) and which may have the potential to cause stress or other mental health problems or exacerbate pre-existing problems or vulnerabilities.

It is in employer’s interests not to encourage those practices which tend to lead to stress and other related problems. This includes working late, employees taking work home with them, accessing emails out of office hours, spending more than occasional evening drinking with colleagues, taking on too much work, not taking holidays or time off in lieu when it is due to them. No matter how devoted we are to our work, we all need good quality time away from it.

A culture can develop in a team whereby people compete to be the busiest or the most stressed as it demonstrates how important they are and how hard they are working. This is not a logical thought. Those who are working most efficiently and who have the right workload will be able to complete their work in normal working hours. It is down to managers to ensure that this is nipped in the bud before it burns out employees.

Mental health is certainly a complicated issue and it is not easy for anyone to deal with mental health problems when they arise whether it is in themselves or in other people. Current research is indicating that the workplace is a hot potato in terms of mental health problems both in terms of causing them, and not dealing with them. It is an issue that employers need to get a grip on, however, as the financial implications of not doing so can be significant.

Last reviewed 9 August 2017