Is Your Workplace Worsening Your People’s Mental Health?

A woman and man do yoga to improve their mental health

Growing up, I suffered from undetected mental health issues. It started at age 4 when I burned both legs with boiling water and was put in isolation care in the hospital for several weeks. I was in pain, surrounded by strangers, in an unfamiliar environment, and I felt lonely and abandoned. My parents weren’t even allowed to visit me due to the risk of infection.  

While my physical scars healed over time, my mental health took a substantial hit and changed how I interacted with the world around me. This experience affected how I was feeling, thinking, and acting. I transformed from a happy child to one that didn’t trust people and withdrew from social interaction.  

The Covid-19 pandemic has been a traumatic event for all of us. In many cases, the inherent isolation, economic uncertainty, and relentless fear, loss, and stress caused individuals in otherwise good health to develop a state of mental distress or even mental illness.

Based on my experience and extensive research, I can confirm that mental health issues are as real as physical health issues, and there is no separation between the two. Mental health influences physical health and vice versa—we all have mental health. Mental health is also dynamic and can change from one minute to the next. We are constantly operating on a continuum from green to red, which is influenced by internal and external variables or triggers.  

Mental health issues are as real as physical health issues—there is no separation between the two.

Unfortunately, mental health is still surrounded by a lack of awareness, misunderstanding, and a substantial stigma, which prevents many who suffer from mental health issues from talking about it and seeking help. The self-talk that we engage in surrounding our mental health challenges can quickly become self-stigma, which means that we become our own worst enemy when it comes to seeking help.

But there is more than just stigma. A variety of factors influences mental health itself. Mental health issues are rarely triggered by just one thing. While a blow to the head can cause damage to the brain that can trigger mental health issues due to a physical injury or chemical imbalance, for the majority of the population, it is a myriad of compounding factors that negatively impact how we think, feel and act.  

How do we define mental health?

A well-established model is the Mental Health Continuum that identifies four specific stages of mental health: 

  1. Healthy – Normal functioning
  2. Reacting – Common reversible distress
  3. Injured – Significant functional impairment
  4. Ill – Clinical disorder. Severe and persistent functional impairment

While the first two stages can be addressed through self-care and social support, stages three and four require, in most cases, professional care. Research has told us that about 20% of the population is receiving care for mental health issues at any given point in time. Still, we also know that nearly 50% of adults with serious mental health issues are not receiving any type of treatment. We all have mental health, and with a growing list of stressors, it becomes harder and harder to recover from setbacks. As a result, we might find ourselves trapped in the lower half of the Mental Health Continuum, confined to the “Injured” stage, which can further deteriorate into clinical disorder and severe and persistent functional impairment.

The business imperative of mental health

The impact of poor mental health on businesses is substantial. We now know that annual costs for individuals with behavioral health issues for medical/surgical treatment are 2.8 to 6.2 times higher than those for individuals with no behavioral health condition. In addition, 200 million workdays are lost every year due to depression. The World Economic Forum reports that by 2030, the global costs of mental health problems will total over $6 trillion. 

These numbers are unsustainable and heavily impacting business performance, but the work environment is also a significant source for the underlying stressors that lead to mental health challenges. In a recent survey, 61% of respondents suggested that their work contributed to mental health issues, and 37% confirmed that their mental health negatively impacted productivity. If not interrupted, the relationship between work, stress, and productivity loss will become quickly a self-reinforcing cycle.  

Companies are starting to comprehend the critical importance of this mental health tsunami.  

Let’s take a closer look at how work can contribute to the decline of mental health and therefore make employees less productive and engaged. The illustration below highlights some of the most prevalent contributors to poor mental health and the caution signs indicate where companies can make a difference.  

Graphic on Mental Health and Social Isolation

Let’s start with two of the most prominent items on the list: a toxic culture and a bad manager. If you have experienced either or both, you know how much these variables influence well-being and mental health. Conversely, having a great manager and a positive culture can be an effective buffer against other stressors inside and outside of work. And that’s not all; having a great manager that expresses a holistic interest in the employees also increases employee engagement more than 3-fold

Having a great manager and a positive culture can be an effective buffer against other stressors inside and outside of work.

Another critical point is the impact of severe and chronic stress in the workplace. While a supportive manager and a positive culture can take off the edge, some jobs are just inherently stressful. Consider a trauma surgeon or an air traffic controller. In these types of cases, a supportive work environment is even more important, as are personality and lifestyle factors that can enable compartmentalizing or alleviating stressors.

Luckily, many jobs don’t deal with life and death situations. However, they still impose a tremendous amount of chronic stress because companies have not adopted an employee-centric business model. As a result, they are making their employees’ lives harder than necessary with inflexible policies, lack of communication, no recognition, little autonomy, outdated technology, and a lack of development opportunities, to mention a few. 

Value currencies and employee-centric work environments

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that some of the same issues causing stress for employees are, in many cases, the opposite of what today’s employees are looking for from their employers. Out of a set of 12 expectation categories that today’s employees are seeking, it is easy to see that every single one can cause substantial stress and negatively impact an individual’s mental health if absent or expressed negatively.  

This means that employers have a unique two-for-one opportunity. By ensuring that they meet the expectations of today’s employees, they also remove workplace-specific stressors that contribute to the decline of mental health, lower performance, even more stress, and suboptimal business results.

Graphic illustrating the 12 core employee expectations

The bottom line is that companies have an unprecedented opportunity (and responsibility) to reduce stressors in the workplace and protect the mental well-being of their employees. The same actions will also improve employer branding and an organization’s ability to attract and retain employees by building an employee-centric work environment. What’s not to love?

Learn more about mental health at work here.