Mental ill health is now a leading cause for employee absence. Recent figures from the CIPD found that mental health issues in the workplace are estimated to result in more than 91 million lost days each year, which costs UK businesses up to £15 billion in productivity.
The CIPD’s recent report, Employee Outlook: Focus on mental health in the workplace, found that more than three people in 10 (31%) have experienced mental health problems while in employment.
With this in mind, we wanted to delve deeper into mental health issues in the workplace. By sharing our knowledge and expertise, we hope it will help more employers understand and proactively support mental health issues in the workplace.
What is Mental Health?
We like to borrow this definition from MHFA England, which defines mental health as:
“It’s the emotional and spiritual resilience which allows us to enjoy life and survive pain, disappointment and sadness. It is a positive sense of wellbeing.”
It’s importance to remember, mental health is part of our overall health. A a good barometer for the quality of our mental health is show by:
- How we feel, think and behave
- How we cope with the ups and downs of every day life
- How we feel about ourselves and our life
- How we see ourselves and our future
- How we deal with negative things that happen in our life
- How stress affects us
In the workplace the primary manifestations of mental ill health are anxiety, stress and depression which, although they may not be caused directly by work, are frequently exacerbated by it. Let’s explore each of these mental health issues in more detail.
What are the most common mental health issues at work?
1. Stress in the Workplace
What do we mean by ‘stress’? The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) defines work-related stress as “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them at work”.
Stress is our body’s instinctive response to real and perceived threats and dangers, mental or emotional pressure or challenge. When we get a stress trigger, our bodies go into one of the following:
Fight mode: where we are ready to confront the threat.
Flight mode: where we flee as fast as we can.
Freeze mode: where we are simply rooted to the spot.
Whilst some amount of stress is good for you – fuelling you to be perceptive and productive, stress levels can all too easily spiral out of control and have serious effects on your physical and emotional health.
Symptoms of Stress
Signs of chronic stress to look out for amongst your employees include:
- Disturbed sleep on a regular basis.
- Changes in appetite.
- More frequent agitation and irritability.
- Problems concentrating and focusing on tasks.
- Feeling overwhelmed.
- Problems switching off and resting even when exhausted.
- Headaches or dizziness.
- Muscle pain and tensions.
- Digestive issues.
- Increases in drinking, smoking, over-eating and drug abuse
Head over to our blog Switching on the Taps of your Stress Container to find out more about implementing helpful coping mechanisms during stressful times.
2. Anxiety in the Workplace
Today 1 in 10 of us will be living with an anxiety disorder, with many more suffering in silence with an undiagnosed, constantly gnawing sense of anxiety. Unfortunately less than 50% of people with generalised anxiety disorder access treatment. And women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder than men.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a natural reaction to stress or threat. In fact, you could see it as a hard-wired safety response – part of the “fight or flight” instinct. When we or someone we care about is at risk, our brain prioritises the danger and focuses its energy on beating it.
Anxious thoughts and feelings are a predictable and appropriate response for many. However, the same responses can be triggered when there is no immediate physical danger. Just thinking about a threat, past or future, can be enough to activate intense anxiety. And this can mean that there’s also no clear end point to the threat, so all these anxious feelings can persist. In these circumstances, anxiety can evolve into something that’s problematic.
Feeling a little anxious before a big presentation, for example, might focus your mind and energise you to give your best performance on the day. But if it becomes too much, it could make you feel sick, prevent you from sleeping properly, and leave you with a shaky hand and a wandering mind when the presentation begins.
In more extreme cases, however, anxiety can become a recognised disorder. There are now six types of diagnosed anxiety disorders in the DCM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).
Symptoms of Anxiety
When we’re anxious, our breathing quickens, our heart starts pumping faster, sending more blood to our muscles as we prepare to fight or flee. Both the mind and body adapt in order to give us the best chance of surviving until the danger passes.
Physical symptoms of anxiety include sweating, shaking, feeling sick, and being unable to sleep. The mental effects are also wide-ranging, from clouded thinking and difficulty concentrating at one extreme, to over-active imagination and hyper-alertness at the other. For some people, anxiety is also accompanied by misplaced feelings of embarrassment or shame.
Like other similar conditions, anxiety can range in intensity, from a mild sense of uneasiness, to severe, even paralysing distress. And it can also vary in duration, from momentary to prolonged – and, in some extreme cases, constant.
If you’re looking to support employees suffering from anxiety, you may wish to take a look at our popular Managing Anxious Thoughts workshop here.
3. Depression in the Workplace
A recent UK workplace study found that:
- 56% of employees are experiencing symptoms of depression.
- Female employees are 20% more likely to experience symptoms of depression
- 61% of employees aged 16-24 are experiencing symptoms of depression.
What is depression?
Depression is more than simply feeling unhappy or fed up for a few days.
Most people go through periods of feeling down, but when you’re depressed you feel persistently sad for weeks or months, rather than just a few days.
Some people think depression is trivial and not a genuine health condition. They’re wrong – it is a real illness with real symptoms. Depression is not a sign of weakness or something you can “snap out of” by “pulling yourself together”.
Symptoms of Depression
Depression will manifest in different ways with different people. You may notice a depression colleague showing some of these signs:
- A lack of motivation.
- Suffering from concentration issues.
- Sleepiness at work.
- Showing no interest in their role.
- Difficulty engaging with colleagues.
- Self-imposed isolation.
- Increased absenteeism.
Supporting employees with mental health
Mental Health at work is complex and sensitive topic. And there’s no ‘one size fits all’ approach. However, there are proactive things you can do as an employer to improve mental health in the workplace. Head to our blog post How to Improve Mental Health in the Workplace for some ideas and inspiration.