Mental health in the workplace

Mental health in the workplace

21 June 2021

Our mental health can change as we go through life. We can become mentally unwell just as we can become physically unwell. Mental ill-health can range from common conditions such as anxiety and depression to severe conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. One in four people experience mental health issues each year, with one in six working-age adults at any given time experiencing symptoms associated with mental ill-health1.

Mental health issues have a significant impact on employee wellbeing and are a major cause of long-term absence from work. Work-related stress, depression or anxiety affected 828,000 people in 2019/2020, resulting in the loss of 17.9 million working days2.

What are the symptoms of depression and anxiety?

Although symptoms aren’t always obvious, it’s important for managers to be alert to the early signs of stress and mental ill-health and know how to support people.

Symptoms of depression can include:

  • continuous low mood or sadness
  • feeling hopeless or helpless
  • having low self-esteem
  • changes to behaviour and productivity
  • having no motivation and lack of energy
  • changes to sleep and appetite.

Symptoms of generalised anxiety disorder can include:

  • restlessness
  • difficulty concentrating
  • a sense of dread or feeling ‘on edge’
  • dizziness, tiredness or trembling
  • headaches
  • heart palpitations.

How managers can support their teams

More than one in five people have taken time work due to stress, and only 30 percent of people said they’d feel able to talk openly with their line manager if they were feeling stressed3. If stress builds up over time, it can become difficult to manage, and lead to mental ill-health.

Symptoms of mental ill-health shouldn’t be ignored. Whilst mental ill-health still has stigma attached to it, with the right education and training, managers can help employees feel more supported in the workplace:

  • Understand what support services there are, internally and externally. It’s important that employees know where to go for the right support, so having the knowledge and confidence to point them in the right direction is key.
  • Consider flexible working options. Mental health is unique and every person will have a different experience, so it’s important to consider individual circumstances and needs. Flexible working may help someone to cope better or prevent stress.
  • If someone is returning to work, a gradual easing back may be appropriate. Catch up with them before they return and perhaps speak to an occupational health adviser if available, for support with next steps.
  • Check if your organisation has an employee assistance programme or in-house counselling service. There are also many charities and community support groups.

Suicide and the role of a supportive workplace

Suicide is linked to mental distress. Thousands of people end their lives by suicide each year in the UK, but the reasons for this are complex and varying. Males aged 45 to 49 years of age had the highest age-specific suicide rate; for females, the age group with the highest rate was 50-54 years4.

A change in someone’s behaviour or personality might be a sign they are having suicidal thoughts, but as everyone is different, it’s not always easy to spot.

Suicide behaviours are complex. There is no single explanation of why people die by suicide. Social, psychological and cultural factors can all interact to lead a person to suicidal thoughts or behaviour. For many people, an attempt may occur after a long period of suicidal thoughts or feelings, while in other cases it may be more impulsive5.

It’s important for organisations to have a framework in place to support people. Although suicide in the workplace is unusual, it can occur, and the impact on colleagues can be traumatic.

Rethink Mental Illness’ guide provides more advice: How to support someone with suicidal thoughts.

1 Mental health statistics, MHFA England, 2020
2 Work-related stress, anxiety or depression statistics in Great Britain, HSE, 2019
3 Taking care of your staff, Mind UK
4 Suicides in England and Wales, Office for National Statistics, 2019
5 Suicide | Mental Health Foundation