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Mental health in the workplace: Opportunities and challenges

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A woman working in an office.

What Is Mental Health?

Your mental health consists of your psychological, behavioral, and emotional well-being. It involves your ability to cope with stress and integrate both the joys and struggles of your life into your sense of self.

Many things can affect your mental health, including your genetics, biochemistry, and life experiences. Conversely, your mental health can affect many areas of your life, including your relationships, your physical health, and your work.

How Does Work Affect Your Mental Health?

In general, working is good for your mental and emotional well-being, as it provides a sense of purpose, income, identity, and routine. However, depending on where you work, what you do, and what resources and support systems are available to you, work may have a negative effect on your mental health. Common workplace factors that may negatively affect your mental health include:

    • Stress: Stress affects us mentally, emotionally, and even physically. Insomnia, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart problems, and a host of other long-term health issues are tied to chronic stress. Although stress management skills can help you handle stress in healthy ways, being in a high-stress work environment can leave its mark on your mental health.
    • Burnout: If you experience chronic stress in the workplace for too long, you may experience burnout. Burnout has been identified as an occupational phenomenon by the World Health Organization (WHO). It is characterized by exhaustion, negative feelings toward your job, and decreased efficacy at work. According to Gallup, 76% of employees experienced burnout in 2020.
    • Discrimination: Discrimination—whether it’s based on race, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic class, religion, age, ability, etc.— is not only damaging to your mental health, it is also illegal. Additionally, being discriminated against for having a mental health disorder is illegal.
    • Stigma: Mental health struggles are still stigmatized in today’s culture. For example, people you work with may make rude comments or assumptions if you ask to take a day off for your mental health. This lack of support can then further harm your mental health.

How Does Poor Mental Health Affect the Workplace?

It’s in the interest of employers and business owners to create a healthy work environment for the sake of their employees’ mental health as well as their own business interests. The negative effects of toxic work environments include:

    • High employee turnover: Employee turnover caused by toxic work environments cost businesses $223 billion over the last five years.
    • Low productivity: The WHO found that depression and anxiety cost the global economy $1 trillion in lost productivity each year.

How to Create a Workplace that Prioritizes Mental Health

Business owners can and should take the lead in creating a work environment that protects employees’ mental health. To create a healthy workplace, businesses need to create intentional policies, provide generous benefits, educate leaders and workers, and accommodate employees with mental illnesses and disabilities.

1. Create Intentional Policies

The policies of a workplace communicate the values of that workplace. Instead of creating reactionary policies to problems and events as they arise, business leaders can and should be more intentional in their policymaking. That way, employers can 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 of their vacation each year. Even workplaces that have nontraditional schedules should have clear “off” hours for employees that are respected by both colleagues and managers.
    • Encouraging asking for help: One study found that six in 10 workers feel too intimidated to go to their boss or manager with an issue. Problems in the workplace cannot be addressed if they go unsaid.
    • Rejecting fear as a leadership tool: According to psychologist and professor Blake Ashforth, using fear as a leadership tool increases stress, helplessness, and alienation, while lowering self-esteem and team cohesion.
    • Communicating clearly: Effective communication avoids unnecessary conflict, increases productivity, reduces stress, and ensures that team members are all on the same page.
    • Responding proactively to crises: Local, national, and even global crises can affect the mental health of your employees. It’s important to address tragedies that may be affecting your workers, such as a global pandemic, natural disaster, or school shooting.

2. Provide Generous Benefits

Various benefits commonly offered by employers can go a long way in protecting employees’ mental health, such as:

    • Health insurance: Getting treatment for mental illness without health insurance can be expensive. Even people with insurance may face costs that prohibit them from getting the care they need. By offering generous health insurance benefits that cover mental health care, you can make sure cost never stands in the way of your employees getting help for their mental health.
    • Paid time off (PTO): Studies have shown that vacations reduce depression and stress. Even short trips reduce stress hormones. However, most Americans only use half of their available PTO, and 9% take no time off at all, according to Glassdoor. Workers need to be encouraged to use their vacation days to reap the mental health benefits of time off.
    • Mental health days: Sick days can and should be used for all kinds of health reasons, including for mental health. Make clear to workers that they can take a mental health day if necessary. Workers shouldn’t have to specify that they are taking a sick day for their mental health, however. Instead, it should be treated like a request for sick leave for any other kind of illness.
    • Employee assistance programs (EAP): Employee assistance programs offer free, confidential mental health services to workers. Employees can use EAP services for personal problems as well as work-related ones. An EAP can be particularly helpful in the aftermath of a workplace trauma.

3. Educate Leaders and Workers

Nearly half of workers hesitate to discuss their mental health at work, and more than a third fear retaliation or the loss of their job if they seek mental health care, according to a survey conducted by the American Psychiatric Association (APA). By educating employees, managers, and executives, you can alleviate the stigma of mental health in your workplace. There are many ways you can provide educational resources for your workforce, including:

    • Providing a list of educational resources that employees can access privately
    • Offering trainings and workshops for leadership teams
    • Providing confidential self-assessments for employees who may be interested in seeking professional help

4. Accommodate Employees with Mental Illnesses and Disabilities

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), signed into law in 1990, prohibits workplace discrimination against people with disabilities—including people with mental illnesses.

Employers are required to offer the same opportunities to people with mental illnesses as they do to others. They are also required to offer reasonable accommodations to employees with mental illnesses or disabilities who may need an adjusted work environment to work effectively.

According to the Social Security Administration (SSA), there are only two scenarios in which an employer can refuse to hire a candidate or accommodate an employee due to their mental illness:

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

Should You Tell Your Employer About Your Mental Illness?

Employees are not 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 need to explain why. Any disclosure an employee makes to their employer is confidential and cannot be shared with others at their workplace.

What to Do If Your Job Is Affecting Your Mental Health

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

    • 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, such as getting enough sleep, eating regularly, and exercising, 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 desk.
    • Practice stress management: By learning and practicing stress management skills, you can avoid certain stressors, alter stressful situations, adapt your perspective, and accept what cannot be changed.
    • Set boundaries: Where you can, exercise your agency by setting boundaries. Stop answering emails after hours, for example. In the workplace, push back against deadlines that are rushed or unrealistic. You may be surprised at how willing people are to respect your boundaries.
    • Speak out: You can’t change a toxic work culture overnight, and you may not have much agency to even change your own position. However, it’s important to speak out and let your boss know the struggles you’re facing. You don’t have to disclose any mental illnesses, but you can express dissatisfaction with the aspects of your job that are causing you undue stress.
    • Seek professional help: You are not alone. If you’re struggling with your mental health because of your job, seeing a therapist may help. Click here to find a therapist 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, start looking for a job elsewhere.

The Psychological Effects of Working from Home

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, more Americans are working from home than ever before. Although working from home has some benefits, it can create mental health challenges of its own. The mental health benefits of remote work include:

    • Flexible schedule
    • Lack of commute
    • More time with loved ones
    • Greater productivity
    • Opportunity for healthier habits

Despite the benefits of working from home, challenges remain, including:

    • Loneliness and isolation
    • Strained communications
    • Distractions
    • No work/life balance
    • Greater risk of burnout

It’s not unusual for people who are working from home, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, to struggle with their mental health. Working from home may solve a lot of problems experienced in the typical office workplace, but it comes with its own challenges. If you need help adjusting to working from home or adjusting to office life after remote working, click here to find a therapist near you.

About the author

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

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