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How to Improve Mental Health in the Workplace

Last updated on 26th January 2023

Mental health problems are very common in the workplace. According to statistics, over 12% of all sick leave is attributed to mental health, and the workplace can be a cause of a wide range of mental health conditions including stress, anxiety and depression.

According to the Mental Health Foundation this means that around 1 in 6 people are experiencing mental health problems in the workplace. So, if you are working in a team of 20 people, it is likely that at least three team members will be struggling with their emotional wellbeing at any one time.

The NHS have reported that 19.9% of all their sickness absence in January 2022 was due to mental health issues.

Improving staff wellbeing in the workplace is therefore very important. It is not only crucial for the people you know and work with but failing to tackle the issue can have a detrimental effect on staff productivity and morale. According to a recent article in FE News, taking steps to improve psychological wellbeing in the workplace could save UK businesses up to £8 billion a year.

Staff wellbeing in your workplace

Under the HSE Health and Safety regulations, employers have a legal duty to protect employees from stress at work by doing a risk assessment and acting on it.

To find out how well your workplace considers the emotional wellbeing of the staff, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you know if any of your staff are suffering from mental health issues? – The chances are that there will be some, given that this is such a widespread issue across the workplace, but this problem often goes largely undetected and is ignored.
  • Does your workplace talk openly about mental health issues and people’s thoughts and feelings? – Some work environments can be supportive of discussing thoughts and feelings but this is unlikely to be the case in busy environments such as kitchens or factories which often have a high turnover of staff. In addition, men in a predominantly male working environment are highly unlikely to open up to admitting to problems. Men can struggle with mental health issues and male suicide is the biggest cause of death among the under-35 age group, so this group especially can be at risk.
  • If you thought that a workmate, colleague or staff member was struggling with their psychological wellbeing, how comfortable would you feel in approaching them on the subject? – Would you feel confident that you could help? Or would it just become excruciatingly awkward and uncomfortable?

Sadly, this whole area of staff wellbeing is ignored in many workplaces where the whole focus is on performance and targets. This is a mistake. If there are steps for wellbeing in place it will create a better working environment for everyone. This leads to improved productivity and performance as well as fewer days’ absence because of sick leave.

If people feel happy and confident at work, it is far better for business than a workforce who generally feels depressed, anxious and put upon.

Workers discussing mental health

How to spot the signs that someone may be struggling with mental health issues

All workplaces are different and although we sometimes know our colleagues very well and perhaps have been working alongside them for years, this is not the case in all instances. However, there may be some signs that somebody is undergoing difficulties, especially if they begin to display changes in their behaviour.

Here are seven signs that may suggest there is a problem.

Changes to appearance

If a staff member who was previously well groomed and smart starts showing up for work looking unkempt and untidy, it may be a sign that something has changed at home and they are failing to cope.

Changes to work performance

You notice that a staff member who was previously efficient and on top of their work begins to make mistakes and fails to attain their usual performance. Lack of motivation, lack of attention to detail and making mistakes could suggest that their mind is not on the job. It is important to get to the root of the problem rather than to jump straight into a disciplinary response.

Increase in absenteeism

Your work member may have had a good record up until now, but now rings in sick on a regular basis. Could it be that the workplace is causing anxiety and stress? Or is there an underlying issue at home which is affecting wellbeing? Either way, you need to understand what is going on in order to control and manage the situation.

Changes to overall personality and demeanour

Does your colleague seem to be becoming anxious or stressed out? Are they nervous, excitable or seem worried or tense? These types of changes can suggest that there is a mental health issue below the surface.

Mood swings and emotional outbursts

Has your staff member suddenly developed a short fuse, becoming angry or irritable over unimportant issues? Do they continue to flout office policy or workplace rules? These could be a sign of a mental health issue.

Have they become antisocial or withdrawn?

If a co-worker seems to shun social interaction with colleagues and has drawn away into isolation this could be a red flag that something else is going on.

Is the person drinking more heavily than usual?

Coming into work every morning with a hangover or displaying signs of illegal drugs may be caused by stress and anxiety in an effort to block out reality.

Man struggling with his mental health in the workplace

The different steps for promoting positive staff wellbeing

As with most human matters, the first step always must be effective communication. With wellbeing issues, you do need to be fairly circumspect in your approach and open up the conversation casually.

Step 1 – Opening up the conversation

One way you can start the conversation is to say how important it is that people at work should be able to talk together. You could point out that in the average working week of 40 hours plus, we actually spend more time with our workmates than our families.

It is also important to remember that not everyone has a family or partner to go home to. For single people living alone, emotions can become bottled up and it is easy to become increasingly withdrawn without this contact. It is important to take the time to find out the backstory of the people you work with or employ, in order to be aware of their feelings. For example, if your office is discussing their various exciting weekends, the fact that one person is not joining in could suggest they are feeling left out rather than being antisocial or bad-tempered.

It is always important to have conversations with the people we work with, even if it may seem trivial, such as what’s on TV, football or any other topic you may have in common. If you can make a connection with a workmate or employee, you can always use this common topic to open up a dialogue and move the conversation along to how they may be feeling, how they are liking their job or other meaningful subjects.

Step 2 – Improve physical wellbeing

Eating well and obtaining a good level of nutrition helps everyone feel better. In the workplace this is often overlooked and you may find that most of your staff are operating on crisps, snacks and chocolate bars, rather than eating healthy food.

If you have any control over workplace vending machines, make sure you can add some healthier food options to the menu. In addition, many workplaces provide fruit and breakfasts and doing this can help ensure that your team are not operating on unhealthy snacks or working on an empty stomach throughout the morning. In addition, it is an added incentive to arrive for work on time!

One good way to promote team bonding and good eating is to arrange a lunch out occasionally. Alternatively, offer to do a takeaway run and choose an outlet that provides healthier options such as Subway. These types of actions may only seem like small things but they do greatly help boost morale and add to making the workplace a more enjoyable place to be.

Thinking of ideas for mental wellbeing does not have to include only expensive or major plans. Even small steps will greatly help improve wellbeing and staff morale. These types of gestures help people feel confident they are valued.

Step 3 – Take regular breaks

It is important to take time out to relax over the day with a regular morning and afternoon coffee break and a proper lunch break as well. There is often a tendency to eat and drink at the desk and this should always be avoided. Everyone needs a few breaks throughout the working day and switching off for a while will help recharge batteries.

If your employees’ work mainly involves sitting down, changing the scene and encouraging them to move away from the desk will help their stress levels. In contrast, if the job involves lots of activity and standing up, they need to sit down for a break.

Sometimes moving outside the workplace for a few minutes does a lot of good for psychological wellbeing. Your employees don’t need to be smokers to enjoy a quick break in the fresh air! Employees should feel confident that they can take a short break for a few minutes if they need to recharge, such as following a stressful call or coping with a difficult situation, before going straight into the next one.

No matter how busy you are, insist that all staff members take their lunch break. Tell them that taking 30 minutes off to relax and enjoy their food, will reduce stress levels and that this is very important for physical and mental wellbeing and work performance.

It is easy to become overloaded at work but this is a very common factor for stress-related illness.

The same goes for taking annual leave. There are always some people who would rather work through the year and take the extra money. It is important to explain that it is far better to make the most of holiday leave because it helps revitalise and recharge batteries, leading to improved mental wellbeing and improved work performance.

Supporting staff wellbeing by being clear about what you expect from your employees is a good start. Many workplaces have a culture of looking busy at all costs and you can find that some people may be reluctant to take their daily breaks and owed holidays for fear of management disfavour.

Creating a workplace environment where everyone works hard but feels confident enough to take their breaks and to mention any issues such as stress will lead to far better performance all around.

Wellbeing break

Remove the stigma from mental illness

With 1 in 6 of us likely to suffer from a mental health condition at work there should not be any stigma to admitting to suffering from stress, anxiety or depression. You will probably find that just by opening up the conversation, everyone will admit to feeling like this occasionally or will know someone who does.

The main reason that any mental health issues are swept under the carpet at work is that people are often worried about how this may negatively impact their job and future career. Yet in many cases it is work that may be adding to the problem.

Taking steps toward positive mental health in the workplace will help create a better environment for everyone. We do often spend more time at work than we do with our own families, so it makes sense to make the workplace as stress-free as possible. Some jobs are stressful by their very nature so ensuring that you do not ramp up this pressure by creating a hostile and stressful working environment will not only help individuals, but it will also improve productivity and performance and keep staff levels stable.

The key to improving staff wellbeing in the workplace is to understand and know your employees. For small companies this may come down to you as the boss; in larger operations it may be the responsibility of line managers. Either way, staff members need to have the support of a sympathetic management style that will notice any issues early on so that any individual problems around staff wellbeing can be acted upon before they develop into full-blown mental health problems.

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About the author

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Jane Higgins

Jane works with the CPD Online College to produce great articles and has been with us since 2019. Specialising in numerous areas of content, Jane has a vast writing experience and mainly works on our health & safety and mental health posts. Outside work Jane enjoys playing music, learning foreign languages and swimming in the sea even when it is far too cold for comfort!

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