Mental health in the workplace: Creating supportive environments

The conversation around mental health has become more open in recent years, with 1 in 4 of us experiencing a mental health condition annually. Awareness of the importance of psychological health and potential types of treatment for mental health concerns are fortunately becoming more visible. However, there are some areas where the mental health conversation still has room to grow. 

One of these areas is in the workplace. When we are struggling, it can be very difficult to compartmentalise. This makes it very hard to leave our distress at home. Sometimes, it can work the other way around, with intense workloads, meaning the weight of burnout follows us home. This makes the impact of workplace culture pivotal for our well-being. But how can this culture be improved? What does a supportive and inclusive work environment look like, and what signs of distress should we look for in ourselves, our colleagues and employees? 

Understanding workplace mental health 

Sadly, our day-to-day lives can often be punctuated by stress. This can especially be the case at work. You may feel overwhelmed during work hours or even experience burnout after an extended period of chronic stress. This can lead to exhaustion and low mood, reduced motivation and difficulty concentrating. For some people, this can make it very hard to get out of bed in the morning, especially when faced with the so-called ‘Sunday scaries.’ With burnout being classed as an ‘occupational phenomenon by the World Health Organization, it is difficult to ignore the relationship between mental health and our experiences at work. And for some people, these experiences become all-consuming. 

Alongside experiences of burnout, we also need to be mindful of how our time at work can be coloured by preexisting mental health conditions. Mental health conditions can be more prevalent than we may think. Mind investigated how many individuals were diagnosed with a mental health condition in the UK each week:

This data indicates that it is statistically likely that a number of individuals in any given workplace will deal with a diagnosed condition also does not account for other situational conditions such as postnatal depression or bereavement-related stress. 

It is also important to recognise that neurodivergent individuals may experience the workplace in a different way. This means that people with a diagnosis of ADHD, autism and dyslexia may need additional workplace adjustments in order to feel appropriately supported to access the workplace. It is also common for individuals to have a dual diagnosis- this may mean that their needs ‘fluctuate’ as symptoms ebb and flow.

Recognising signs of distress

Whether you are an employee, an employer or a concerned colleague, the more well-versed we are in the signs of workplace stress, the better positioned we are to combat them. Whilst troubles with our mental health can manifest in different ways, there are key signs you can look out for in yourself and others. 

In yourself 

  • Feeling exhausted 
  • Lack of motivation 
  • Feeling depressed
  • Lack of pleasure (inside and outside of work)
  • Feeling anxious
  • Feeling irritable 
  • Constantly thinking about work 
  • Feeling that you are not good enough
  • Feeling or being sick
  • Panic attacks
  • Difficulty sleeping 
  • Changes in appetite 
  • Stomach pains
  • Headaches 
  • Working late to catch up
  • Working less in order to avoid stressful situations
  • Tension at home 

In others

  • Social withdrawal 
  • Increased reliance on caffeinated beverages and sugary foods
  • Appearing discouraged
  • Working at a slower pace than others 
  • Working late to catch up
  • Working less in order to avoid stressful situations
  • Appearing ‘absent’ during conversations 
  • Not responding to emails or calls 
  • Turning up late 
  • Having a short fuse
  • Becoming tearful 
  • Conflict with colleagues/ management 

Building a supportive culture at work 

A workplace of tired, stressed and anxious staff is not a pleasant place to be. It is also not the most productive setting for work to take place. This means that building a supportive and inclusive culture isn’t just about hitting buzzwords – it’s an essential part of recruitment, staff retention, satisfaction and overall productivity. You can cultivate a more supportive culture at work by:

  • Provide opportunities for self-care 
  • Set appropriate boundaries 
  • Model health work-life balance 
  • Prioritise work social life 
  • Have regular check-ins and team meetings 
  • Have a mental health first aider at work 
  • Be open to suggestions on how to make work a healthier environment 
  • Reward positive work 
  • Focus on team-building and resilience 
  • Show respect to colleagues, employees and employers 
  • Showing people that they are valued 
  • Offering reasonable workplace adjustments  

Working towards a healthier work-life balance 

Good mental health sometimes starts at work – but it can also be cultivated at home. You can make an impact by making healthy changes in search of a healthier work-life balance. This could look like:

  • Accessing annual leave
  • Focusing sleep hygiene  
  • Avoid caffeine
  • Scheduling fun activities
  • Accessing professional support
  • Talking to a loved one
  • Talking to a supervisor 
  • Changing shift patterns 
  • Sticking to structured work hours 
  • Hybrid working 
  • Exercising
  • Eating well
  • Practising meditation 
  • Practising gratitude 

Accessing mental health resources 

If your mental health is starting to significantly affect your time at work, you may feel that you need more formal support. If you need to seek help, you can do so by:

  • Contacting a mental health treatment centre
  • Contacting an addiction specialist 
  • Contacting a GP
  • Speaking to management 
  • Speaking to HR
  • Attending self-help groups 
  • Attending A&E In a crisis
  • Calling 111
  • Calling Samaritans on 116 123