Protecting mental wellbeing at work

Written by Chloe Hall.

While training, productivity, and teamwork are vital for any business to succeed, more and more businesses are looking at the mental health of their team, and implementing new strategies to safeguard from stress, anxiety, and other mental health issues.

While work can be good for our mental health, tight deadlines, overbearing colleagues, and just the general pressures of work can damage mental health over time.

We look at why protecting mental health at work is so important, how it can be harmed due to work, and what businesses can do to make a difference for their staff.

How work can be good for our mental health

The WHO confirms that, for a majority of people, employment provides a sense of financial security, and a livelihood which ensures that they can enjoy basic necessities, which is of course crucial to basic mental health.

It also offers opportunities to make new friendships, collaborate as part of a team, gain a sense of self-worth and a sense of achievement, which further support good mental health.

Benefits of good mental health at work

The UK’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) emphasises that good codes of practice at work lead to benefits for everyone. For example, lower risk mean fewer accidents, fewer lost working days, lower staff turnover, improved reputation, and higher rates of productivity.

What are the risks to mental wellbeing at work?

Both the HSE and the WHO highlight several risks to workers in terms of mental health being impacted by work.

They derive from a work culture that tolerates or even promotes negative behaviour and practice, as long as targets are met.

For example, understaffing, excessive workload, long working hours, low rates of pay, unsafe conditions, a lack of support from colleagues, an overbearing management style, discrimination, harassment, bullying, lack of appropriate training, unclear job description, and a lack of opportunities for career development can all harm mental health, as well as having a negative impact on workplace culture and staff retention.

What about people who work informally?

The WHO estimates that over half of the world’s work force makes a living informally. This means that they have little, if any, legal protection when it comes to health and safety. Conditions like an unsafe workplace, antisocial hours, low pay and potential discrimination all naturally undermine mental wellbeing.   

Which sectors are most prone to poor mental health?

Poor mental health can be found in just about all working roles. However, some employees are more frequently exposed to risks because of the nature of their work.

For example, employment among the health, humanitarian, and emergency sectors often means accepting an increased risk of facing challenging circumstances, which can negatively affect mental wellbeing.

Industries with high pressure and turnover also are more likely to negatively impact the mental health of those who work in them.

How political and economic conditions impact mental health

Challenging economic and political circumstances can also impact negatively on mental health. For instance, unforeseen events like a recession, public health crisis, or humanitarian emergency can threaten livelihoods, undermine financial security, and lead to higher unemployment rates with fewer job opportunities, which can put more pressure on finances, leading to worse mental health.

How cultural issues and prejudices at work impact mental health

Regrettably, the workplace can still prove to be a divisive environment. The WHO has compiled the following list of personal qualities which can provoke unfair treatment, discrimination and harassment at work: ‘race, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, social origin, migrant status, religion or age’.

There is a further worrying consequence for colleagues with mental health conditions. They may be more likely to face inequalities in the workplace, whether in terms of responsibilities, opportunities for promotion, or support from others. This can naturally lead to increase stress or anxiety, or a loss of self-worth, which can make things worse.

How can the Government, employers, and trade unions safeguard mental wellbeing at work?

Policy makers should prioritise safeguarding mental health at work by consulting with members of the workforce, particularly with people who experience mental health conditions.

Some beneficial policy planning could include exploring flexible working hours and remote working arrangements. Implementing and updating robust policies regarding harassment and bullying in the workplace should be standard practice. These could include short training programmes which could be completed by members of the workforce online.

Managers should be offered training to recognise and react to mental wellbeing issues at work, such as spotting signs of emotional stress, anxiety, depression, distress, overwork and associated fatigue.

A workplace culture which is openly supportive is naturally beneficial for all employees. Sympathetic listening and awareness promote a better appreciation and understanding of difficulties experienced by colleagues, including issues which affect mental wellbeing.

Mental health first aid training can be incorporated into workplace training programmes. Such training fosters awareness of commonplace mental health conditions, reduces stigma, and presents action plans for listening to and supporting colleagues.

At an individual level, workers can be trained to self-diagnose, manage stress, and reduce compromising their mental wellbeing.

Promotion of physical exercise and leisure activities can play a useful part in this. For example, it may be possible for an organisation to offer, or subsidise, gym membership for employees, as exercise has been proven to positively uplift mental health.

Additional support for mental health at work

The WHO suggests a dual approach to support employees who experience mental health issues. First, workplace expectations can be modified appropriately to help support colleagues, for example, arranging regular meetings with a trained manager, imposing flexible deadlines when completing tasks, modifying working hours, conditions and arrangements to help reduce stress triggers.

Second, supporting employees through a personalised, phased return-to-work programme following absence due to mental wellbeing issues.

The WHO campaigns for governments and employers to explore the following seven policy factors to help shape a better mental wellbeing workplace environment for everyone:

  • Management should demonstrate an active commitment to mental health by placing it at the heart of company policies.
  • Dedicated investment in mental health training and awareness should benefit everyone in an organisation.
  • Supportive policies which acknowledge the rights of all people to participate in work should embrace non-discriminatory practice.
  • Health and safety at work should naturally include mental wellbeing issues.
  • Employees should be consulted in policy decision-making processes.
  • Training and Health and Safety procedures need to be regularly revised.
  • Company policy must at least comply with national legislation and HSE recommendations.

Awareness of policies and procedures like these should help to improve overall mental wellbeing at work. This will not only benefit employees who face mental wellbeing issues, but everyone in an organisation.

Read more about why it’s important for businesses to protect mental health, or learn about the impact of bullying at work.

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Posted on: 27th April 2023