Prioritizing Your Mental Health at Work

Strategies and Tips for Improving Your Daily Well-Being
Meet the Experts
Phillip Ginter Director of Community Initiatives, HealthlinkNY View Bio
Michael Klein Workplace Consultant and Adviser, MK Insights View Bio
Written By:
Kenya McCullum View Bio

Workplace stress isn’t uncommon, but when left unchecked, it can lead to bigger problems, such as depression and anxiety. When this happens, stress not only creates debilitating negative emotions, but it also results in lower productivity, the inability to concentrate on work and strained relationships with colleagues. This guide provides tips on how to make mental health a priority when on the job as well as information on how some organizations have made good mental health a part of their culture.

The Mental Health Landscape

  • People in the manufacturing, retail and food and beverage industries have the highest rates of workplace-related stress.
    (Source: Mental Health America)
  • More than 300 million people around the world suffer from depression. The condition is the leading reason why workers go on disability.
    (Source: World Health Organization)
  • Of the employers who become aware of a worker suffering from depression, 64 percent will refer that person to an Employee Assistance Program (EAP).
    (Source: Mental Health America)
  • Among people in the workplace, 83 percent of men and 72 percent of women report that workplace stress affects their personal lives.
    (Source: Anxiety and Depression Association of America)
  • Mental health problems were attributed to workplace stress by 28 percent of Americans.
    (Source: Ipsos)
  • Some of the most common reasons why people don’t seek help for mental health issues are:
    • Cost of treatment,
    • Not wanting to see a therapist,
    • Not knowing how to find a good psychiatrist or therapist,
    • The time it takes to get an appointment with a health care professional, and
    • Concerns about people finding out.

    (Source: Ipsos)
  • The more severe someone’s depression is, the less productive they will be in the workplace.
    (Source: The Annals of Family Medicine)
  • Depression is among the most expensive health conditions that workers suffer from. The high cost of depression is related to medication, absenteeism, presenteeism and doctor’s visits.
    (Source: Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine)
  • Of the workers who have gotten treatment for their mental illness, 80 percent report that their workplace satisfaction and productivity increased.
    (Source: Center for Workplace Mental Health)
  • Some of the common factors that can contribute to people’s mental health problems include:
    • Inflexible work schedules,
    • Lack of support from management,
    • Lack of clarity about work tasks or organizational objectives,
    • Poor managerial communication, and
    • Unsafe work environments.

    (Source: World Health Organization)
  • Workplace stress was reported by 57 percent of executives, 56 percent of middle managers, and 50 percent of frontline employees. The increased stress of people in management positions is attributed to the increased responsibility and time commitments these workers have.
    (Source: Mental Health America)
  • Of workers, 56 percent report that stress and anxiety have affected their productivity, 51 percent say it’s impacted their relationships with coworkers, and 50 percent say it has diminished the quality of their work.
    (Source: Anxiety and Depression Association of America)
  • Three in 10 people admit that they are embarrassed to talk to other people about their anxiety, depression or workplace stress.
    (Source: Ipsos)
  • Some of the most common methods people use for coping with work stress include:
    • Getting more sleep,
    • Drinking alcohol or using illicit drugs,
    • Smoking,
    • Exercising more, and
    • Drinking more coffee.

    (Source: Anxiety and Depression Association of America)
  • About 60 percent of people whose work stress has affected their performance say they’re afraid to speak to their boss about it. The most common reasons include fear of:
    • Being laughed at,
    • Being labeled as weak,
    • Negatively impacting opportunities for a promotion,
    • The problem going into their file, and
    • The problem being seen as an unwillingness to work.

    (Source: Anxiety and Depression Association of America)

How to Improve Mental Health at Work

Considering the amount of time people dedicate to their jobs, it’s important for them to be able to navigate the workplace in a way that reduces stress, rather than exacerbates it. The following tips can help workers alleviate the effects of the stressors they experience at work in order to improve their overall mental health.

  1. Know the signs of a problem.

    When people begin suffering from depression or anxiety, there will be changes in their behavior they should pay close attention to. Some of those signs may include taking longer to complete routine tasks, having difficulty communicating with coworkers and feeling the need to call in sick more frequently. As people experience these problems, they may begin to push themselves to work harder, which may eventually aggravate the issue.

  2. Make a to-do list.

    Feeling overwhelmed from a mountain of work can contribute to anxiety and depression, so making a to-do list can help people stay on track. Not only does this help people prioritize what needs to be done, it also allows them to feel better every time they check an item off.

  3. Take frequent breaks.

    “People can make sure that they take time out of their workday for ‘wellness breaks,’” says workplace consultant Michael Klein. “For some folks, this can be short walks during their lunch hour, breaks with colleagues or even five minutes of relaxation (or guided mediation using various free apps) at their desk or elsewhere.”

  4. Drink water.

    People who are suffering from anxiety and depression often neglect basic self-care activities, including drinking water. Staying hydrated at work can go a long way toward helping people concentrate and stay centered, which may reduce the effects of stressors in the office.

  5. Avoid workplace gossip.

    Although some people use workplace gossip for entertainment, a way to bond with coworkers or to communicate their frustrations, in the long run, it can cause more stress because it lowers morale and strains relationships with colleagues. Venting about problems with a coworker, however, can be healthy as long as the conversation is done directly with that person and not third parties.

  6. Avoid taking on too much.

    “Think before you commit to a project, assignment or committee position,” says Phillip A. Ginter, Regional Director of Community Initiatives at HealthlinkNY. “Consider your needs and available resources, and evaluate whether it will lead to overextending yourself.”

  7. Set small, manageable goals.

    When a workload seems unachievable, it can make people feel helpless and contribute to their stress and anxiety levels. Setting manageable goals can help break down big tasks into smaller ones so the work doesn’t feel so daunting.

  8. Add personal items to a workspace.

    Adding personal items to a workspace can help people feel better when they’re experiencing stress. When people can look at reminders of their loved ones, favorite pet or enjoyable hobbies, it can help them feel centered and positive as they think about the things that make them happiest.

  9. Talk to human resources.

    “If organizational or management issues are creating mental distress, it is important to alert a human resources professional at their organization to discuss,” Klein says. “This can feel like a risky move to make. However, once an HR professional is told ‘on the record’ that an employee is under emotional distress, they are required by law to address the issue.”

  10. Identify triggers.

    Everyone has different triggers for anxiety and depression in the workplace — from doing a presentation to writing reports to going to a company function — so it’s important for people to track the situations that make them uncomfortable in order to prepare. Workers who aren’t sure what their triggers are can keep a journal of the things that have led to stress in order to identify them. Next, they should do things to relax before these triggers come up, such as stretching, doing breathing exercises or taking a quick walk.

  11. Get help.

    People who are having problems don’t have to suffer in silence. Mental health professionals can help those struggling with anxiety and depression develop the tools they need to cope with their stressful workplace, as well as prescribe appropriate medications as needed.

  12. Don’t feel ashamed.

    “Accept that there is no shame to experiencing symptoms of a mental health disorder,” Ginter says. “A national survey found that 1 out of 5 working adults reported having experienced a mental health disorder in the previous month, so you’re not alone.”

What Are Companies Doing to Address Mental Health?

Some people don’t get help for their mental illness because they’re afraid of the repercussions of letting their boss know about their problems. However, many workplaces understand the true cost of not dealing with issues like anxiety and depression, so they work to promote good mental health. The following companies are examples of those that have made good mental health among workers a priority.

  • American Express.

    Addressing workers with health issues is nothing new to American Express, which has on-site health clinics at each of its offices around the world that have helped people manage conditions ranging from diabetes to obesity to high blood pressure. In order to also ensure that employees’ mental health problems are taken care of, American Express launched the Healthy Minds program, which provides access to counselors at its employee clinics. The program has been so successful that it has a 98 percent satisfaction rating from employees, and the American Psychological Association and Mental Health America have given it awards for its effectiveness.

  • Barclays.

    To help decrease the stigma associated with mental health conditions, Barclays launched the company-wide “This Is Me” campaign that encouraged employees to share their stories of mental health challenges. Since the website launched, 200 people have contributed their testimonies and there have been 60,000 visitors who have read them.

  • CHG Healthcare.

    CHG Healthcare’s employees, as well as their families, can take advantage of free mental and physical health services at the company’s on-site clinic. In addition, the organization promotes work-life balance among its employees by allowing them to have alternative work schedules, such as telecommuting, flextime and job sharing. These benefits have helped the company to be ranked among the best workplaces in the country by Fortune magazine.

  • DuPont.

    In 2011, DuPont launched a training program designed to raise employee awareness about how to maintain good mental, physical and emotional health. The “Employee Wellness: A Way of Life” program examines stress and how it can be managed, dealing with shift work and the importance of maintaining healthy diets and sleep patterns.

  • Netflix.

    In order to help its employees juggle their home and work responsibilities effectively, Netflix offers extremely flexible schedules that are not based on a 9-to-5 workday or scheduled company holidays. As a result, employees are allowed to take time off as they need to and observe the days that are important for their lifestyle. In addition, the company offers a generous parental leave program.

Expert Q&A

Dealing with mental health problems while trying to manage workplace responsibilities can be difficult, so workers need as much information as they can get to learn how to improve their health while easing workplace stress. In order to provide more information on these important issues, we asked our experts, workplace consultant Michael Klein and regional director of Community Initiatives at HealthlinkNY, Phillip A. Ginter, to provide their insights.

  • What are some factors in the workplace that can be detrimental to people’s good mental health?

    Ginter:
    Let’s frame your question a different way: What factors promote mental health wellness in the workplace? It’s pretty common for employers to offer wellness programs that focus on losing weight, quitting smoking and moving more. Employers also should offer programs that support emotional well-being. One of the biggest things employers can do is to support a healthy work-life balance. Employers can establish technology policies that encourage employees to disconnect from work email when they are home. They can offer flexible work schedules and encourage employees to use their vacation time.

    Klein:
    There are many factors that have been shown to effect emotional wellness in the workplace. Some of the most cited ones include lack of job clarity (i.e., what exactly is my job and how do I know if I’m doing it well?), constantly shifting priorities, job insecurity (i.e., is my role going away?) and setting unattainable goals. However, time and time again, we see that poor management is one of the greatest causes of distress as well as people leaving their jobs.

  • What are some common mental health problems that can be caused by stress at work?

    Klein:
    Anxiety and depression are the most broad (and common) categories seen that can be caused by work. Within those two diagnoses, we find symptoms such as changes in sleep, changes in appetite, inability to concentrate, hopelessness and many others.

  • What are symptoms that people will experience when mental health issues from work are beginning to surface?

    Ginter:
    This is something employers commonly ask. We put together an employer tip sheet that identified behaviors and physical signs that could signal a mental health concern. Employers can often dismiss these signs as an employee who is “just being difficult” or “lazy.” Things like conflict with team members, complaints about workload, complaints about lack of support, indecisiveness, loss of confidence and unplanned absences can be signs an employee is struggling with a mental health concern.

    Klein:
    Increased irritability, performance problems, increased emotionality (e.g., easy to trigger crying or other emotional outbursts), intense fear, shortness of breath, restlessness and others.

  • What can people who are experiencing workplace stress do to prevent it from causing problems like depression and anxiety?

    Klein:
    Making sure to take time outside of work to unwind, connect with others and completely detach from workplace stressors can be three very powerful strategies for managing stress at work.

  • What can organizations do to create an environment that promotes good mental health?

    Ginter:
    The HealthlinkNY Community Network has a free tool kit to help employers set a mental health wellness policy and promote mental health wellness in the workplace. Organizations can provide mental health training for managers so they feel comfortable talking to employees about mental health challenges. The tool kit recommends ways to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness, including a list of stigmatizing language to avoid. The tool kit also points out ways employers can make the physical workplace less stressful — providing good lighting, ventilation and a quiet zone where people can go for a few minutes of peace.

    Klein:
    While health insurance provides mental health treatment, many companies also provide short-term counseling via telephone (or even online) through an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). These programs provide all kinds of support to employees beyond emotional wellness issues and provide an incredible return on investment for employers.

    In addition, companies can make sure that they hire and train managers well. Too many companies see training and management development as a cost and not a business requirement. However, given the impact of managers on workplace performance and wellness, money spent on hiring qualified managers (and training employees to be good managers) and any investment in quality management coaching and training is a good one.

    In my work, I have several companies for which I provide both onsite and telephone-based workplace coaching. While this work doesn’t address mental health problems or issues outside of work, it assists employees who are dealing with difficult coworkers or manager situations, job insecurity and skill development — all of which can prevent problems at work from turning into mental health issues. This also saves companies money in lost time at work, disability claims and workers compensation.

  • What can organizations do to support their workers who are already having mental health problems?

    Ginter:
    Make sure they have access to mental health resources at work or in the community and ensure their health insurance coverage covers mental health services as well as physical health. If it is a work-life balance issue, offer things like a flexible time-off policy so employees can attend to what they need to and encourage employees to use their vacation time.

  • What are the most important things people should keep in mind about mental health in the workplace?

    Ginter:
    More days of work and productivity loss are caused by mental illness than any other chronic health condition. Mental health needs to be destigmatized so that employees are willing to seek help and managers are willing to support them. A behavioral health disorder is not a weakness, it’s a health condition that should be recognized and treated. If someone was concerned they were experiencing signs of cancer or some other physical condition, they would seek help. Signs of a mental health condition should be the same.

More on Mental Health

Many resources are available for people who need help addressing how their workplace impacts their mental health. The following are some websites, videos, apps and podcasts that can help.

  • This podcast covers issues related to anxiety, stress and post-traumatic stress disorder.

  • Reader’s Digest offers advice on foods that people can eat to reduce their anxiety.

  • Breathe2Relax provides information on the effects that stress can have on the body and how breathing exercises can reduce it. The app has instructions for diaphragmatic breathing exercises and can measure users’ heart rates.

  • This video from the Wall Street Journal explores how to help professionals with mental health issues.

  • The Happify app includes tips to help users increase their happiness by reducing negative thoughts, increasing self-confidence and dealing with stressors.

  • Users of this app learn about meditation and mindfulness through a library of hundreds of meditations. People can find meditations to help them exercise, sleep and focus as well as a beginner’s course to help them learn meditation principles.

  • This article from Forbes magazine provides information on how organizations can provide an environment that promotes good mental health.

  • This TEDx Talks video covers anxiety and how to deal with it.

  • This app connects people with mental health providers who offer therapy and coaching through the app or in person. Self-guided care is also available.

  • People who are unsure if they are struggling with anxiety or depression can take a mental health screening test from Mental Health America. After completing the screening, individuals can get information on how to receive help.

  • MAP is a self-help tool designed to instruct people on how to deal with anxiety symptoms. In addition, users get tips on how to live a healthy lifestyle.

  • This page on NPR’s website includes articles about stress in the workplace.

  • This class from the University of Pennsylvania provides information on how to become a psychologically stronger, more resilient person. Course topics include how to manage anxiety, improve relationships and increase optimism.

  • This episode discusses how mental illness can affect people and their workplace experience.

  • This article from Health magazine provides examples of some of the best exercises people can do to improve their mental health.

  • In this TEDx Talks video, Tom Oxley of Bamboo Mental Health talks about the importance of fostering good mental health in the workplace.