The working world is often stressful. And let’s be honest: we all have days in the office when we don’t feel our best. But what happens when these days turn into weeks, months, or even years, and the stress starts to feel overwhelming?
If this sounds familiar, then you might be dealing with more than just stress. You could be experiencing a mental-health issue.
But if you are, then you’re not alone. Many of us will struggle with common mental-health issues, such as depression and anxiety, in our lifetimes. And often these issues have their roots, but also their solution, in our working conditions.
This article aims to help you on your journey toward better well-being in the workplace. Packed with mental-health insights, they’re a valuable source of advice for both employees and organizations.
Knowing What Mental Well-being Looks Like
What does well-being mean to you? Perhaps you equate it with physical health – with being free of aches and pains, with eating healthily and exercising frequently.
And it’s true: wellness and physical health go hand in hand. But real well-being is as much about the mind as it is about the body. To be completely healthy, we must also achieve optimal mental health.
So how do we define good mental health?
Good mental health means feeling fairly confident and having decent self-esteem. It means being comfortable with experiencing a full range of emotions, from joy to anger to sadness, and everything in-between. It also means being comfortable with expressing these emotions.
More broadly, good mental health means that you’re able to reach your full potential, without being held back by your own thoughts, feelings, or behaviors.
One key aspect of good mental health is your ability to maintain positive relationships with other people. When life becomes problem-filled and stressful, these relationships provide a place of comfort and support – a place that can help you deal with the demands of daily life.
Research shows that one in four people in the UK will experience a mental illness at some point in their lives. But despite the prevalence of mental ill-health, it often goes undetected by the person’s family, friends, coworkers, and even by the person experiencing it.
This may be because people aren’t sure what poor mental health actually looks like. Which is why it’s important to familiarize yourself with some of the typical symptoms of mental-health problems. These symptoms include feeling more distressed and upset than usual. For instance, you may find yourself crying more than usual. You might also experience abrupt mood swings for no discernible reason, or find yourself behaving aggressively or erratically.
Another indicator of poor mental health involves withdrawing from other people. Perhaps you find yourself reluctant to make plans with anyone, and you no longer enjoy socializing or doing the things that you used to love.
Other symptoms include problems sleeping, to the point where you feel constantly exhausted. You might also experience bodily aches and pains that have no rational or physical explanation.
Unfortunately, your workplace is often responsible for these symptoms of stress. In the following sections, you’ll discover the threats to your mental health at work, and how you and your employer can minimize them.
Mental Well-being At Work Depends On Several Key Areas
What makes a job great? Ask a room full of different people and you’ll get a room’s worth of different answers. This person will emphasize the importance of a high salary, that person will stress the value of career-progression opportunities, and that person over there will say it’s all about having friendly coworkers.
In short, there’s no single combination of elements that will make everyone happy at work. However, there is a basic recipe that will help everyone be healthy at work.
The first aspect of work that significantly affects your well-being is the demands that your job places on you.
Generally speaking, you feel good when you’re able to cope with the demands of your role. This means being comfortable with the working environment in which your job is performed, being able to deal with your work patterns, and feeling able to handle the amount of work required of you.
The second factor that contributes to well-being is the extent to which you feel in control of your work. Good mental health means having a certain amount of autonomy over how you carry out your tasks and activities.
Positive relationships in the workplace are also crucial for your mental health. You need to be able to do your work without coming into too much conflict with your coworkers. And the presence of any unacceptable behavior, such as workplace bullying, is disastrous to your well-being.
To enjoy optimal mental health at work, you’ll also need to fully understand what your specific role is within the organization. Problems can arise when you can’t pin down what’s expected of you, or when you’re given multiple and conflicting roles in the organization.
Finally, organizational change is a key element of your working life that can make or break your mental well-being.
Although any change can be challenging, mental health is boosted when you feel that you’re being kept informed about these changes, and when you believe that your organization’s leaders are willing to engage with you to discuss them.
When these six aspects of working life are sensitively considered and well handled by employers, employees are much more likely to enjoy good mental health and well-being. But when any of these six areas are managed poorly, stress, reduced productivity, and increased rates of sickness often follow.
In the next section, you’ll discover how you can lead your workplace to better mental health.
Leaders Need To Take Action To Improve Their Employees’ Well-being
How can business leaders empower their employees to reach their full potential? It all starts with promoting mental well-being in the office. But although many leaders want to help their staff feel good at work, many aren’t sure where to begin. If this sounds familiar then don’t worry – you don’t need to have all the answers just yet. All you need to do is listen to your staff and learn from them.
Gaining an initial understanding of how your staff feel is crucial, because if you don’t know what the problems are, then you won’t be able to solve them.
With this in mind, the first step for you as a manager is to simply take stock of the mental health of your workforce. And the easiest way to gauge the well-being of your employees is to ask them. You can do this by requesting that each employee completes an anonymous questionnaire about their mental well-being. Include questions that deal with the demands placed on them as employees, whether they have a good relationship with their coworkers, and how supported they feel by senior management.
By gathering this data, you’ll be able to identify areas of your employees’ work lives that are posing a hazard to their mental health. Then you can make these areas your priority for improvement.
Overall, leaders can promote better mental health by fostering a culture of openness around mental-health issues.
Unfortunately, nearly a third of British employees report that they’d be uncomfortable telling their manager that they’re feeling stressed. With this in mind, it’s important to let your staff know that the organization is there to support them with any issues they may be having. In other words, you must ensure that conversations around mental health become normalized in your workplace.
You can promote this culture of openness through small gestures, such as putting up posters about mental health in prominent places around your office. Alternatively, you could place advice and information about mental health in your company newsletter, or on your intranet pages.
Sadly, it’s often the case that people struggling with stress or mental health at work assume that they’re the only ones because no one else talks about it. But you can help break this silence by inviting your employees to share their true feelings with you and with each other during team meetings.
Don’t be afraid to share your own experiences of stress to get the ball rolling. Seeing that leaders are unafraid to talk about their own mental health will help to normalize these conversations.
Better Mental Health Starts With A Better Work-life Balance
The actions of your employer can have a big impact on your mental well-being. But if you’re an employee, you don’t need to wait for your boss to act on well-being initiatives. You can do it, too! Once you claim control of the hours in your day, you’ll hopefully start to see a transformation in how you feel.
The core of a good work-life balance is having enough time to devote to your personal needs and interests, while also being able to stick to your work commitments.
Attending to your personal life, such as your friendships, hobbies, and exercise routine, is important because it’s this sphere of your life that helps you to cope with the daily stresses of work.
One way to improve your work-life balance is to set limits on the length of your working day. Research shows that your stress levels increase with the number of hours you spend working. So the longer you’re in that space the more strain is put on your mental health.
Avoid overworking by giving yourself a reason to leave the office. Arrange an activity for directly after you plan to finish, such as dinner with a friend, or an exercise class. When you provide yourself with a justification for leaving, it makes it easier to overcome the obligation you feel to stay at work.
Another way to reclaim your leisure time is to write down a list of all your outstanding tasks before you leave your desk for the day. Your brain is hardwired to constantly think about all your unfinished activities until they’re completed, a phenomenon known as the Zeigarnik effect.
This presents a problem for your work-life harmony, because when you leave the office, the last thing you want is to be inundated with thoughts about work. Luckily, evidence suggests that when you write a to-do list of outstanding tasks, your mind will stop reminding you about them, leaving you free to enjoy your evening in peace.
Finally, it might be a good idea to rethink how you spend your daily commute. Although you might try to use your commuting time to work, doing so makes the working day feel longer, which in turn causes your stress levels to rise. So it’s a good idea to spend this time doing something unrelated to work, like listening to a podcast or reading a book.
Managers Can Help Struggling Employees By Co-creating A Wellness Action Plan
If you’re a manager, then chances are that someone on your team will experience mental-health difficulties at some point. Although it can be tough to know what to do in such a situation, rest assured that taking any well-intentioned action is usually better than doing nothing at all.
It may be fairly easy to spot people who are dealing with some issues.
They’re often tearful or withdrawn in meetings, or they take a lot of days off work. In some cases, they frequently argue with their coworkers. They may even explicitly tell you that they’ve been diagnosed with a mental-health problem.
When you’re confronted with a coworker’s mental health issue, it’s natural to be afraid of saying the wrong thing. Perhaps you feel awkward, or out of your depth. Nonetheless, as a manager, it’s your responsibility to step in to offer support.
If you need a push, consider that people experiencing difficulties will probably feel worse if they see you ignoring their distress. So don’t be afraid to reach out and acknowledge what’s happening.
How should you approach the person?
The best course of action is to discreetly arrange a one-to-one meeting, and sensitively explore how he’s feeling. It can be useful to write a wellness action plan together.
This is a document in which the employee writes down information about the mental-health problems he’s experiencing, and what triggers exist in his workplace that contribute to these feelings. You can then draw up a strategy together for how to help him improve his mental health in the workplace, and make a list of actions that both of you can take to help get him back on track.
This could include anything from setting limits on when his coworkers can contact him outside of working hours, reducing his time in the office, helping him access counseling in the workplace, or allowing him to take some time off work to recuperate.
Importantly, this wellness action plan should only discuss his mental health in relation to the workplace. It’s not your responsibility to include a plan for other areas of his life.
A wellness action plan can also include details of what good mental health feels like. Understanding what to look out for in his behavior or communication patterns will mean that, in the future, you’ll know how to assess whether he’s feeling well again, or whether he still needs extra support.
You Can Find Your Mental Health Triggers By Beginning A Thought Diary
When you have a problem with your mental health, it’s normal to feel helpless. It might even feel like you’ll never feel OK again. But when you find yourself experiencing a dip in your mental health, remember that there are things you can do to help yourself return to an even keel.
Although mental-health problems can take you by surprise, most issues arise from certain triggers. Something happens, either at work or in your personal life, that causes that first downward spiral. So it can be helpful to identify what your particular mental-health triggers are so that you can prevent yourself from experiencing them, and so avoid a decline in your well-being.
A thought diary is a journal in which you write down events from your day, as well as the thoughts and feelings that accompanied these events.
For instance, you might miss a work deadline and your accompanying thought is that you can never get anything right. The next morning, you write in your thought diary that you had a bad night’s sleep, and later on, you write that you felt tired and stressed at work.
Looking back on these diary entries will help you see that a single event – missing a deadline – caused a negative thought. That is, thinking that you can never do anything right. This negative thought pattern then triggered stress and anxiety, leaving you unable to sleep, which in turn affected your stress levels at work the following day.
With this in mind, you can try to stop the next downward spiral before it starts. The next time you make a mistake at work, ask yourself if there’s another way you could look at the situation – perhaps a positive way. Reframing how you think can be difficult, but if you manage to stop the negative thoughts before they take hold, then you’ll probably feel less anxious.
You might notice that poor sleep triggers a decline in your mental health. In this case, try to create better sleeping habits. For instance, turn off all your screens at least two hours before you go to bed.
The blue light emitted by TVs, smartphones, and laptops can interfere with your body’s internal clock and disrupt your sleep patterns. Also, try to refrain from eating late at night, as digesting a big meal can stop you from sleeping deeply.
Looking after your eating, sleeping, and screen habits are tried-and-true ways of improving your mental well-being. But it can take more than this to start feeling better. If your work, or any other area of your life, continues to feel too stressful to cope with, then it’s important to seek professional help.
All of us sit somewhere on the mental health spectrum, and many of us will struggle with our well-being at some point in life. If your working life feels too stressful to cope with, you can take positive action by identifying your stress triggers and examining your work-life balance.
If you’re an employer, then remember that better employee well-being isn’t just good for your staff; it’s also crucial to the long-term success of your business.