Updated: Dec 15, 2020
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.
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 its 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.
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.
As well as the duty to consider reasonable adjustments, the Equality Act and the Disability Discrimination Act also protect people from harassment because of a protected characteristic. This means that employers have a duty to address bullying and discriminatory behaviours relating to mental health just as they would for other protected characteristics such as gender, sexual orientation, race or faith/belief.
Looking after your mental health at work
We can all take steps to improve our own mental health, and build our resilience – our ability to cope with adversity. Self-care is a skill that needs to be practised. It isn’t easy, especially if we feel anxious, depressed or low in self-esteem.
Try looking through the 10 evidence-based ways to improve your mental health below.
There’s bound to be one or two you do well. These can be your assets – your go-to methods for working on your wellbeing.
Look for one or two you find hard. These can be your challenges. It may be that these areas are the ones you neglect under stress – for example drinking too much, isolating yourself or comfort eating, are all examples of ways we try and cope that are the opposite of what the evidence tells us works for our mental health.
Finally, look for one or two areas that you feel you could work on or try. These can be goals. Your goals and challenges can be the same but it's sometimes kinder to yourself to have some goals that you can meet more easily.
1. Talk about your feelings
Talking about your feelings can help you maintain your mental health and deal with times when you feel troubled. Talking about your feelings isn’t a sign of weakness; it’s part of taking charge of your wellbeing and doing what you can to stay healthy.
It can be hard to talk about feelings at work. If you have colleagues you can talk to, or a manager who asks how you are at supervision sessions, it can really help.
Identify someone you feel comfortable with and who will be supportive. You may want to think about what you want to disclose, who to and when a good time and place to do this could be.
If you are open about how you feel at work, especially if you are a leader, it might encourage others to do the same.
If you don’t feel able to talk about feelings at work, make sure there’s someone you can discuss work pressures with – partners, friends and family can all be a sounding board.
2. Keep active
Regular exercise can boost your self-esteem and can help you concentrate, sleep, and look and feel better.
Exercising doesn’t just mean doing sport or going to the gym. Experts say that most people should do about 30 minutes’ exercise at least five days a week. Try to make physical activity that you enjoy a part of your day.
You may have a physical job like construction or teaching – you’ll notice if you are off sick because of injury or physical illness how quickly your mood starts to be affected by the change in activity level.
If you work in an office it can make a huge difference to get out for a walk or do a class at lunchtime, or to build in exercise before or after work to ease you into the day or create a space between work time and personal time.
3. Eat well
What we eat can affect how we feel both immediately and in the longer term. A diet that is good for your physical health is also good for your mental health.
It can be hard to keep up a healthy pattern of eating at work. Regular meals, plus plenty of water, are ideal. Try and plan for mealtimes at work – bringing food from home or choosing healthy options when buying lunch.
Try and get away from your desk to eat. You could try a lunch club at work – where you club together to share meals and try new things. For busy times, or times when you are feeling low or stressed, try reducing or giving up caffeine and refined sugar. Make sure there is a ready supply of fruit/vegetables and snacks like nuts or trail mix that provides ready nutrients.
Be aware that some people find public eating at work very stressful because of past or current eating disorders – so if someone doesn't want to come to work dinners, or makes different food choices in the office, don't pass comment or put pressure on them to join in.
4. Drink sensibly
We often drink alcohol to change our mood. Some people drink to deal with fear or loneliness, but the effect is only temporary.
Most people don't drink at work – but most of us recognise the pattern of drinking more at the weekend or in the evening when work is hard going.
Be careful with work functions that include drinking. It can be tempting to have a drink to get 'Dutch courage', but if you feel anxious you may drink too much and end up behaving in a way you'd rather not, which will increase feelings of anxiety in the medium to long term.
5. Keep in touch
Relationships are key to our mental health. Working in a supportive team is hugely important for our mental health at work.
We don’t always have a choice about who we work with, and if we don’t get on with managers, colleagues or clients, it can create tension. It may be that you need to practise more self-care at these times, but you may also need to address difficulties.
Work politics can be a real challenge when we have mental health problems. It can be helpful to find a mentor or a small group of trusted colleagues with whom you can discuss feelings about work – to sense check and help you work through challenges.
Try and make sure you maintain your friendships and family relationships even when work is intense – a work–life balance is important, and experts now believe that loneliness may be as bad for our health as smoking or obesity.
6. Ask for help
None of us are superhuman. We all sometimes get tired or overwhelmed by how we feel or when things don’t go to plan.
Your employer may have an employee assistance programme. These services are confidential and can be accessed free and without work finding out. You may also be able to access occupational health support through your line manager or HR service.
The first port of call in the health service is your GP. Over a third of visits to GPs are about mental health. Your GP may suggest ways that you or your family can help you, or they may refer you to a specialist or another part of the health service. Your GP may be able to refer you to a counsellor.
7. Take a break
A change of scene or a change of pace is good for your mental health.
It could be a five-minute pause from what you are doing, a book or podcast during the commute, a half-hour lunch break at work, or a weekend exploring somewhere new. A few minutes can be enough to de-stress you. Give yourself some 'me time'.
If your employer offers mental health days – discretionary leave to look after your wellbeing – take these, and make sure you use them well. It can be hard to take holidays and time off from work. When we are stressed, it can seem even harder to take the breaks we are entitled to – when we need them most. Try and plan periods of leave for the year so that you always have a break to look forward to.
When you are on leave or at home, resist the temptation to check in with work. If you find that you can’t break away, it may be a sign that you should be re-examining your workload to manage stress.
Sleep is essential to our mental health. Listen to your body. Without good sleep, our mental health suffers and our concentration goes downhill.
8. Do something you're good at
What do you love doing? What activities can you lose yourself in? What did you love doing in the past? Enjoying yourself can help beat stress. Doing an activity, you enjoy probably means you’re good at it, and achieving something boosts your self-esteem.
Concentrating on a hobby, like gardening or doing crosswords, can help you forget your worries for a while and can change your mood. It’s OK to be good at your job – when you feel stressed, it can be easy to forget your talents, or fall foul of imposter syndrome (where you feel like a fraud, or that you don't deserve your successes).
If possible, you should plan your workload to include tasks you know you are good at, so as to 'sandwich' things you know will be harder or more stressful. At work, you may have a hobby you'd like to share or join in with colleagues on – a work cycling club, book group or crafting group can be a great way to share a skill with others.
9. Accept who you are
We’re all different. It’s much healthier to accept that you're unique than to wish you were more like someone else. Feeling good about yourself boosts your confidence to learn new skills, visit new places and make new friends. Good self-esteem helps you cope when life takes a difficult turn.
Be proud of who you are. Recognise and accept the things you may not be good at, but also focus on what you can do well. If there's anything about yourself you would like to change, are your expectations realistic? If they are, work towards the change in small steps.
Self-acceptance and self-care can be very hard when you have a mental health problem – an ongoing challenge people need to work on.
It can be tempting to invest everything in building self-esteem around work success. That often means that people with mental health problems give everything at work and are high achievers. It also creates a risk that when things go wrong, when mistakes are made, or when change is necessary, people may take it personally.
Mindfulness is a form of meditation that involves paying deliberate attention to what is happening, as it happens. Mindfulness practice can help us to be more present with ourselves, our work, and our families. It can help us feel more connected, take stock, and be compassionate to ourselves and others.
10. Care for others
Caring for others is often an important part of keeping up relationships with people close to you.
Working life can provide opportunities to care for others – contributing through vocational jobs like nursing or care work can be hugely significant for mental health. In most jobs, you can choose to be there for colleagues – either as a team-mate, or as a line manager, when strategies like coaching and training are good ways to support others.
Helping can make us feel needed and valued, and that boosts our self-esteem. Volunteering can be hugely rewarding, and it helps us to see the world from another angle. This can help to put our own problems into perspective. Many companies have volunteering opportunities and corporate social responsibility programmes that enable staff to get involved in community work.
Caring responsibilities at home can be hugely rewarding to us, but also a source of stress. Our roles as parents, or carers for relatives, can collide with our work identities. Carers are at greater risk of developing mental health problems – work can provide a respite for carers, as they can be someone else at work – so it is important to retain and support carers in the workplace. Workplaces that support flexible working, carers' leave, childcare voucher schemes and other initiatives to support caring roles can have a big impact on staff mental health and productivity.