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Mental health in the work environment

Published: 14 May 2021
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Whether you love it or loathe it, work is one of life’s inevitabilities. There are many peaks and troughs along the way – with highs such as promotions contrasted with lows such as missing important deadlines. Many of us will have both experiences at least once. Sometimes, negative workplace experiences can have dramatic effects on our mental health.

Unfortunately, work-related stress can affect our ability to carry out tasks and do our job. This can become a cycle where stress makes us worry about our performance, making it harder to concentrate. When we can't focus, the standard or speed of our work might drop. At times, this can feel utterly overwhelming. For many of us, we may just accept this as part and parcel of a busy career. However, we do not have to accept extreme stress as part of our working lives.

Workplace stress is common and widespread, and often builds up prior to important engagements. From my perspective as a former neuroscience PhD student and current postdoctoral researcher, I have encountered various stressful situations at work, including consistent experimental failures, looming research grant deadlines, and important presentations. Such stressors are to be expected, especially in a busy work environment. However, if feelings of depression and anxiety develop in these circumstances, we may need to take an important physiological and psychological health check.

Approximately 17% of working-age adults display symptoms associated with mental illness. Women are disproportionately affected, and are twice as likely as men to experience common mental health issues. And though 20% of people take days off due to stress, 90% of these people give other reasons for their absences to their employer. These numbers indicate that there is still a fear of judgement when reporting poor mental health. This is even though in the UK in 2019, stress, anxiety and depression were responsible for over 50% of all work-associated illnesses and 55% of all workdays lost due to employee health. This likely correlates with 2019-20 estimates indicating that 828,000 UK-based workers were affected by work-related stress, anxiety or depression, which increased from 602,000 reported cases in 2018-19.

Why are these numbers so high? There are many factors contributing to these worrying statistics.

A report published in 2017 said that employees with long-term mental health conditions were twice as likely to lose their jobs than those without. Though mental health awareness has increased over the past decade, these numbers emphasise how urgently we need to strengthen national efforts. In my opinion, employers should routinely check in with employees about their mental health and wellbeing and monitor and mitigate risk factors within the workplace. Personally, I keep a mood journal to monitor my mental health, as I have bipolar disorder. This helps me to identify any potential triggers which may contribute to a bipolar episode. Employers could consider introducing similar digital mood trackers for their employees and respond accordingly if staff morale appears to be decreasing. However, this is just one of many potential options that could be incorporated to benefit employee health. 

What can I do?

We know that stigma, fear of discrimination and sometimes cultural norms can discourage people from seeking help. One way to make this better is to seek out support networks. Though discussing mental health within the working world is becoming more common, it is easy to still worry about others’ opinions.

Before I spoke up about my mental health at work, I was concerned that my colleagues would think I was incapable of successfully doing my job. My anxiety was compounded by paranoia, as I was worried that asking for help would result in my dismissal – despite that being illegal in many countries. Now, when my mental health affects my ability to work, I try to immediately discuss it with my employer. After all, how can an employer adapt and adjust to our needs if we do not ask them? Asking for help can be daunting, but it is crucial. If speaking to your colleagues concerns you, consider communicating with your human resources department instead.

It can also help to develop coping mechanisms to help you through stressful workdays. I often go to the gym during my lunch breaks and find that any negativity from a stressful morning is then eradicated by the endorphin hit I get from an intense workout. If you would prefer to have some time to relax and unwind, then do so. I also sometimes find a quiet spot to read a book or go for a walk – both of which really help clear my busy mind for the afternoon ahead. Regardless of what you decide, I emphatically encourage you to take all of your lunch break. Whilst this isn’t necessarily straightforward within the academic setting, try to be strict with your non-working time so that you have time for rest.

If you need more support, you could also consider seeing a therapist or psychiatrist. I see a psychiatrist once a month and it really helps me put things into perspective. It can take some time to find the right specialist for you, but it can be an incredibly beneficial process to go through alongside your own coping mechanisms.

If you are still struggling with stress at work after trying different coping strategies, it could be time to look for a different, more supportive work environment. It can be difficult to admit when a job doesn’t fit properly, but we will never be able to force pieces into place which are not meant to go together. Do you remember the last time you were happy at work? If not, perhaps it is time to seek advice from friends and colleagues. If others feel your work hinders your happiness, perhaps it is time to move on.

Whilst not everyone will be understanding or supportive, most people – including employers – are empathetic and will listen to you. If you receive negativity after stepping forward, then perhaps that will help you decide what to do.

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Ted Wickstead


 

Dr Ted Wickstead is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Arizona. Ted was awarded his PhD in neuroscience in 2019 from the University of Westminster. Ted is also a science communicator, setting up his ‘No Rest For The Scientist’ social platforms to tackle misinformation online. He is also a strong advocate for mental health awareness, and regularly writes about these topics on his blog