Support mental health at work

For many of us, work is a major part of our lives. It is where we spend much of our time, where we get our income and often where we make our friends. Having a fulfilling job can be good for your mental health and general wellbeing.

We all have times when life gets on top of us – sometimes that’s work-related, like deadlines or travel. Sometimes it’s something else – our health, our relationships, or our circumstances. The value added to the economy by people who are at work and have or have had mental health problems is as high as £225 billion per year, which represents 12.1% of the UK’s total GDP.

It’s vital that we protect that value by addressing mental health at work for those with existing issues, for those at risk, and for the workforce as a whole. A toxic work environment can be corrosive to our mental health.

We believe in workplaces where everyone can thrive. We also believe in the role of employers, employees and businesses in creating thriving communities.

Good mental health at work and good management go hand in hand and there is strong evidence that workplaces with high levels of mental wellbeing are more productive. Addressing wellbeing at work increases productivity by as much as 12%. After reading this guide you should:

  • have an idea of how to manage your own mental health at work
  • have an idea of how to reach out to a colleague in distress
  • have an idea how you can work with others to make your workplace more mentally healthy for everyone.

Introduction

Mental health is the way we think and feel and our ability to deal with ups and downs.

Mental health is something we all have. When we enjoy good mental health, we have a sense of purpose and direction, the energy to do the things we want to do, and the ability to deal with the challenges that happen in our lives.

When we think about our physical health, there’s a place for keeping ourselves fit, and a place for getting appropriate help as early as possible so we can get better. Mental health is just the same.

If you enjoy good mental health, you can:

  • make the most of your potential
  • cope with what life throws at you
  • play a full part in your relationships, your workplace, and your community.

Your mental health doesn’t always stay the same. It can fluctuate as circumstances change and as you move through different stages in your life.

Distress is a word used to describe times when a person isn’t coping – for whatever reason. It could be something at home, the pressure of work, or the start of a mental health problem like depression. When we feel distressed, we need a compassionate, human response. The earlier we are able to recognise when something isn’t quite right, the earlier we can get support.

What are mental health problems?

We all have times when we feel down, stressed or frightened. Most of the time those feelings pass, but sometimes they develop into a mental health problem like anxiety or depression, which can impact on our daily lives. For some people, mental health problems become complex, and require support and treatment for life.

Factors like poverty, genetics, childhood trauma, discrimination, or ongoing physical illness make it more likely that we will develop mental health problems, but mental health problems can happen to anybody.

Our research shows that most people have some experience of a mental health problem,  and the latest large-scale survey in England suggested that one in six people experience the symptoms of a mental health problem in any given week.

Sadly, over 6,000 people a year die by suicide in the UK, and having a long-term mental health problem may reduce life expectancy by as many as 21 years due to associated physical health problems.

Different mental health problems affect people in different ways and it’s key to understand an individual’s experience. Diagnosis is not a definite way to understand a person’s experience. Some people with schizophrenia for example live pretty much ordinary lives, and some people with anxiety are severely impacted by their condition.

How do I recognise a mental health problem?

If we have significant challenges in our home or work life, the chances are that it has an impact on our mental health.

Mental health problems can have a lot of different symptoms and signs. As a rule, you should seek help from your GP if you have difficult feelings that are:

  • stopping you from getting on with life
  • having a big impact on the people you live or work with
  • affecting your mood over several weeks
  • causing you to have thoughts of suicide.

At work, we might notice that we are more tired than usual. We might make uncharacteristic mistakes, find it hard to motivate ourselves, our timekeeping might slip, or we may be short tempered.

We might look or feel very tired or drained. We might find we isolate ourselves, avoid colleagues or appear distracted. We might procrastinate more – or grind to a halt altogether. Or we might speed up or become chaotic, intruding into others’ conversations and work, and taking on more work than we can manage.

We may find these early warning signs hard to see in ourselves, and it can help to have colleagues who can help us connect this to our mental health.

If things progress, you might see more obvious signs of a mental health problem in a colleague – outbursts of anger or emotion, absences from work, or not looking after their appearance as they normally would. You may see signs that they have been sleeping less or perhaps drinking more in the evening.

Why don’t people talk about mental health?

Awareness of mental health is increasing, but we still face a world where people with mental health problems face discrimination, and can face challenges getting the help they need. Many people who experience distress try to keep their feelings hidden because they are afraid of other people’s responses.

Fear of discrimination and feelings of shame are among the top reasons people give for not telling their colleagues about their mental health problems.

When we create workplace cultures where people can be themselves, it is easier for people to speak about mental health concerns without fear, and easier for them to reach out for help when they need it. Even so, the decision to disclose distress at work is not one people take lightly. It is vital that workplaces become environments where people feel safe to be themselves.

What does the law say?

We have a wide range of legal rights that protect our mental health at work. These range from basic human rights such as the right to freedom of expression and freedom of association, to the health and safety legislation that keeps us safe from hazards, including psychological hazards.

The Equality Act (2010) in England, Scotland and Wales and the Disability Discrimination Act (1995, as amended) in Northern Ireland

Most people with ongoing mental health problems meet the definition of disability in the Equality Act (2010) and the Disability Discrimination Act (1995, as amended). This means that people with mental health problems are protected from discrimination and harassment and are entitled to reasonable adjustments to adapt their job or work.

To be considered disabled under equality legislation, a person must have an impairment that has “a substantial, adverse, and long-term impact on their ability to carry out everyday tasks”. The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland provides information about the different protections for people with mental health problems in Northern Ireland.

Reasonable adjustments

A disabled person is entitled to ask for reasonable adjustments to their job or workplace to accommodate their disability. An adjustment is intended to level the playing field by removing a barrier to the job that is provided by the effect of their mental health problem.

Examples of reasonable adjustments:

  • Changing a person’s working pattern to enable them to start later or finish earlier because of the side effects of medication, or allowing them to travel the night before meetings and stay over to avoid early morning travel.
  • Providing a person with a laptop, remote access software and permission to work at home on set days, or flexibly according to the severity of their symptoms (within a monthly limit).
  • Excusing someone from attending work functions and client events involving food, instead allowing them to set up alternative networking arrangements that achieve similar business returns.

Access to Work is a government-funded scheme that can help to fund equipment, software, and other support if cost is a barrier to making reasonable adjustments.