Putting Mental Health on the Workplace Health Agenda

On World Day for Safety and Health at Work, let's stop ignoring mental health.

Posted Apr 28, 2019

April 28 is World Day for Safety and Health at Work. But as we pause to reflect on safety and health in the workplace, we need to be thinking about more than ventilation and proper desk postures. We also need to reflect upon mental health and its connection to work.

Mental Health in the Workplace Remains a Taboo Topic

While most people now recognize the need to talk about safety and health in the workplace, mental health is another story. Even as many people admit to feeling stressed at work, talking about mental health is rare. This is likely due to the fact that we’ve created a culture where even talking about mental health remains taboo.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Morra Aarons-Mele observes, “We’re loath to talk about mental health at work. If we’re feeling emotional at work, our impulse is to conceal it — to hide in the bathroom when we’re upset, or book a fake meeting if we need alone time during the day. We’re hesitant to ask for what we need — flex time, or a day working from home — until we experience a major life event, like a new baby or the illness of a parent.”

I couldn’t agree more. When it comes to mental health, too many people continue to hide. But as Aarons-Mele also points out, mental health is never an individual problem. “The burden of depression and anxiety is shared by all members of a workplace, and it’s a vicious cycle.”

Changes in the Workplace Are Impacting Mental Health

Photo by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash
Mental health remains a taboo in the workplace.
Source: Photo by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash

Mental health in the workplace isn’t a new problem, but there are indications that it’s a growing problem.  A recent call to action published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine observes that this may reflect the changing nature of work itself. Mental health problems impact all workers but especially impact knowledge workers whose mental acuity and creativity are essential job requirements. Thus, as more people assume jobs in the knowledge economy, mental health is becoming an increasing problem in the workplace.

Digital technologies are also transforming the workplace and, in turn, impacting mental health.  The ability to work from home has given us greater flexibility and, for some people, this has supported a better work-life balance. But these new technologies have brought a mixed bag of benefits and struggles.

As I argued in my 2012 book, Rewired, “Being overwired is an increasingly dangerous predicament personally and professionally, with very high costs in four important areas: mental, physical, emotional/interpersonal, and financial. Each affects the other in a downward spiral of cognitive drain, physical debilitation, compromised relationships, and a real loss of productivity and profits.”

Sadly, since I published Rewired over seven years ago, the effects of new technologies on all aspects of our lives, including our mental health, have become more pronounced. While I’ve seen some benefits, I’ve also seen the exasperation of many other problems. My clients are tired, wired, and running dangerously low on personal bandwidth. As we’re increasingly expected to be on 24/7 and 7 days, it's becoming more and more difficult to focus and attend to our wellness. This is leading to higher levels of stress and anxiety and creating a mental health crisis in the workplace that we can’t afford to ignore.

The Cost of Ignoring Mental Health in the Workplace

If you think that mental health isn’t your problem, consider the numbers. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy US $1 trillion each year in lost productivity. The WHO further estimates that around the world, more than 300 million people suffer from depression--the leading cause of disability. Many of these people also suffer from symptoms of anxiety.

Not all the people suffering from depression are suffering as a result of work. Yet, the WHO notes, “A negative working environment may lead to physical and mental health problems, harmful use of substances or alcohol, absenteeism and lost productivity.”

Fortunately, there is hope. The WHO study found, “Workplaces that promote mental health and support people with mental disorders are more likely to reduce absenteeism, increase productivity and benefit from associated economic gains.”

As we mark 2019 World Day for Safety and Health at Work, we have a clear call to action—mental health isn’t just impacting individuals, it’s compromising our bottom line. As a result, it's time for all of us, but especially leaders, to take a stand and start addressing mental health in the workplace.

While this task may seem daunting, it doesn’t need to be. Leaders can begin to address mental health by creating a work culture where it's acceptable to acknowledge mental health is also a workplace safety and health issue. Once the taboo is broken, leaders can take steps to help their teams reduce stress and anxiety. This must entail creating safe spaces to talk about mental health in the workplace and to engage in proactive problem solving.

Given the tremendous financial burden mental health currently places on organizations, the potential return on investment is obvious. By addressing mental health at work directly, we can build loyalty among employees, increase engagement, and drive productivity.

References

Goetzel, R. Z., Roemer, E. C., Holingue, C., Fallin, M. D., McCleary, K., Eaton, W., … Mattingly, C. R. (2018). Mental Health in the Workplace: A Call to Action Proceedings From the Mental Health in the Workplace-Public Health Summit. Journal of occupational and environmental medicine, 60(4), 322–330. doi:10.1097/JOM.0000000000001271

Morra Aarons-Mele (November 1, 2018), We Need to Talk More About Mental Health At Work, Harvard Business Review, https://hbr.org/2018/11/we-need-to-talk-more-about-mental-health-at-work

World Health Organization (September 2017), Mental Health in the Workplace, https://www.who.int/mental_health/in_the_workplace/en/