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Mental health in the workplace

Reviewed by Stephanie Steinman, PhD, CSAC

Two emergency responders sit in the back of an ambulance staring thoughtfully

How does work affect your mental health?

Working is generally good for your mental and emotional well-being. It provides a sense of purpose, income, identity, and routine. But depending on where you work, what you do, and what resources and support systems you have, work can also undermine your mental health.

Workplace factors that may compromise mental health include:

  • Stress: Stress affects us mentally, emotionally, and physically. Insomnia, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart problems, and a number of other health issues are tied to chronic stress. Although stress management skills can help you handle this in healthy ways, a high-stress work environment can still leave its mark on your state of mind.
  • Burnout: If you experience chronic work stress for too long, it may lead to burnout. The World Health Organization (WHO) identifies burnout as an “occupational phenomenon” characterized by exhaustion, negative feelings toward your job, and decreased efficacy at work.1 Gallup reports that 76% of employees experienced it in 2020.2
  • Discrimination: Discrimination—based on race, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic class, religion, age, or disability—damages your mental health. It’s also illegal. Being discriminated against for having a mental health disorder is illegal as well.
  • Stigma: Mental health struggles are often still stigmatized at work. For example, colleagues may make rude comments or assumptions if you ask to take a day off for your mental health. This lack of support can cause even more harm.

How does poor mental health affect the workplace?

A healthy work environment helps employees’ mental health and employers’ business interests. The negative effects of toxic work environments include:

Ways to create a workplace that prioritizes mental health

Business owners can and should take the lead in building work environments that protect employees’ mental health. This requires intentional policies, generous benefits, educating leaders and workers, and accommodating employees with mental illnesses and disabilities.

Establish intentional policies

The policies of a workplace communicate its values. Instead of creating reactionary policies to problems and events as they come up, employers should purposefully include business philosophies that promote mental health and protect workers from burnout.

Common policies that set the groundwork for a healthy work environment include:

  • Promoting work-life balance: Employees should be encouraged to use all their vacation each year. Even workplaces with nontraditional schedules can establish clear “off” hours that are respected by colleagues and managers.
  • Encouraging people to ask for help: One study reported that 6 in 10 workers feel too intimidated to go to their boss or manager with an issue.5 Problems in the workplace can’t be addressed if they’re never discussed.
  • Rejecting fear as a leadership tool: According to psychologist Blake Ashforth, using fear as a leadership tool can increase employee stress, helplessness, and alienation while lowering self-esteem and team alignment.6
  • Communicating clearly: Effective communication avoids unnecessary conflict, increases productivity, reduces stress, and helps make sure coworkers are all on the same page.
  • Responding proactively to crises: Crises like pandemics, natural disasters, or school shootings can affect employees’ mental health. It’s important to address local, national, and global tragedies that may be affecting workers.

Provide generous benefits

Employer-provided benefits can go a long way toward protecting workers’ mental health. They include:

  • Health insurance: Treating mental illness can be expensive, especially without insurance. Even people with insurance may face high costs. Offering generous health plans that cover mental health care ensures that cost won’t prevent employees from getting the help they need.
  • Paid time off (PTO): Studies show that vacations reduce depression and stress—even short trips can reduce stress hormones.7 However, most Americans only use half of their available PTO, and 9% take no time off at all.8 Workers should be encouraged to use their vacation days and enjoy the mental health benefits of time off.
  • Mental health days: Sick days can be used for all kinds of health reasons, including mental health. Employers must make it clear to workers that they can take a mental health day if necessary. Workers shouldn’t have to specify why they’re taking a sick day, though—mental health days should be treated like time-off requests for any other kind of illness.
  • Employee assistance programs (EAPs): EAPs at many organizations offer workers free, confidential mental health services. Employees can use these services for personal problems as well as work-related ones. An EAP can be particularly helpful after a workplace trauma.

Educate leaders and workers

Nearly half of workers hesitate to talk about their mental health at work, and more than a third fear retaliation or job loss if they seek mental health care, according to a survey conducted by the American Psychiatric Association (APA).9 By educating employees, managers, and executives, employers can help reduce this stigma. Educational resources can include:

  • Lists of educational resources that employees can access privately
  • Trainings and workshops for leadership teams
  • Confidential self-assessments for employees who may be interested in seeking professional help

Accommodate employees with disabilities

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits workplace discrimination against people with disabilities, including people with mental illnesses.

Employers are legally required to offer the same opportunities to people with mental health conditions that they do to others. They’re also required to offer reasonable accommodations to employees with mental illnesses or disabilities who require an adjusted work environment to work effectively.

The Social Security Administration (SSA) lists only two scenarios where an employer can refuse to hire a candidate or accommodate an employee due to their mental illness:10

  • Hiring or accommodating the individual poses a direct threat to the health or safety of the workplace
  • Accommodating an employee places “undue hardship” on the business

Should you tell your employer about your mental illness?

Employees aren’t legally required to disclose any mental illnesses or disabilities before, during, or after the hiring process. However, if an employee requests an accommodation for their mental illness, they will have to explain why. Your employer should do everything they can to keep your health information confidential.

What to do if your job is harming your mental health

If you’re afraid your workplace is causing you to develop a mental health condition or making an existing one worse, here are six steps you can take to protect yourself:

  • Prioritize self-care: Self-care is the foundation of our physical, mental, and emotional health. If you aren’t taking care of yourself in simple ways, like getting enough sleep, eating healthfully, and exercising regularly, your job may become more stressful. Take small steps to practice self-care at work, such as drinking enough water and taking your lunch break away from your workspace.
  • Practice stress management: By learning and practicing stress management skills, you can avoid certain stressors, change stressful situations, adapt your perspective, and accept what can’t be changed.
  • Set boundaries: Where you can, exercise your agency by setting boundaries. Stop answering email after business hours, for example, or push back against deadlines that are rushed or unrealistic. You may be surprised at how willing people are to respect your boundaries.
  • Speak out: A toxic work culture can’t be changed overnight, and you may not have much agency to change your own position. Even so, it’s important to speak out and let your manager know what you’re facing. You don’t have to disclose mental health information, but you can talk about the aspects of your job that are causing you stress.
  • Seek professional help: You’re not alone. If you’re struggling with your mental health because of your job, a therapist can help. Search our directory for a provider near you.
  • Start looking elsewhere: You shouldn’t have to put your mental health at risk just to make a living. If your workplace is toxic beyond repair, it’s time to look for another job.

The psychological effects of working from home

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, more Americans have been working from home than ever before. Remote work has benefits—including flexible scheduling, no commute, more time with loved ones, greater productivity, and chances for healthier habits—but it can create mental health challenges of its own. Drawbacks may include loneliness, distractions, communication problems, a lack of work-life balance, and a greater risk of burnout.

If you need help adjusting to working from home, or readjusting to office life after remote work, seeing a therapist may be helpful. Browse our directory to find a licensed mental health professional near you.

About the author

The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.

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