The average joe works almost 85,000 hours in their lifetime.
84,365 hours, to be precise. Or 5,061,900 minutes. Or 303,714,000 seconds.
AKA: a lot of time.
Work is a big part of our lives. Whether we work to live or live to work, whether we’re ladder-climbing career people or 9-5 for the paycheck people - there’s no denying the fact that work is one of the biggest driving forces in our lives.
So it’s also unsurprising that work has a big impact on our mental health.
In the UK, around 17 million working days are lost every year to work-related stress (which we wrote about here), depression or anxiety. 914,000 workers suffer with mental ill-health relating to work. And on top of all that, women in full-time employment are nearly twice as likely as men in full-time employment to experience mental health issues.
The statistics don’t look good…
But we’re about to dive a little deeper and discover why work has such an impact on our mental health and what we can do to better support mental health in the workplace. Ready? Let’s go.
We spend a huge proportion of our lives at work, we know that already. And if we’re not physically at work, we’re probably thinking about work or preparing for work or recovering from work. It’s a lot.
Workplaces are melting pots for different personalities, competing interests and people who live completely different lives to you. And yet, in the workplace, you’re required to work together in one direction to achieve one vision.
That’s where conflict, stress, and mental health issues thrive.
Because, in the workplace, work success is often portrayed as the most important thing. And when the road to that success is paved with people who don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye, the usual unpredictability of the business world, and pressure from managers, it’s no wonder that our mental health often bears the brunt.
It’s not all bad news, though. For many people, stable employment helps to relieve non-work stresses, like financial pressures or turbulent personal lives. The steadiness and routine of going to work, doing a good job and bringing home a paycheck helps many people better handle their mental health concerns.
Clearly every single one of us faces different challenges and has a different experience of the interaction between work and mental health. For some people, it’s the best thing since sliced bread. But for others, it’s challenge after challenge with little respite. We can’t know everyone’s experiences - but the statistics are heavily skewed towards work overall having a negative impact on our mental health.
So, what can we do about it?
Spoiler alert: a lot.
But first: why should we bother trying to improve mental health in the workplace?
Well, why wouldn’t we?! Mental health matters and if there’s clear evidence that the workplace has a massive impact on mental health, then it’s our duty as business psychologists, HR professionals, managers or anyone who works with people to do something about it.
And if that’s not reason enough (it should be!), estimates suggest UK businesses could save around £8 BILLION every year by providing better mental health support in the workplace.
So, what can we actually do about it?
First up, we all need to realise just how pervasive and personal the issue is.
Mental health is an incredibly intimate topic and something that many people don’t feel comfortable discussing even with close friends and family, let alone coworkers. Heading into the office tomorrow and scheduling a mandatory full-team meeting to discuss mental health is probably not the best approach…
If anything, all you’ll succeed in doing is making your entire team feel uncomfortable, unsupported and unmotivated. The opposite of what you intended.
It’s vital that you understand what your team members need when it comes to mental health support. Everyone is different and faces different challenges, which means the best solution is also going to differ from person to person too.
But asking people in a group meeting context is not the way to do it.
Building a line of open communication between managers and team members is one of the most beneficial things you can do in the workplace. Having strong interpersonal relationships opens up so many opportunities to improve mental health, wellbeing, productivity, team relationships and so much more - because you, as a manager or leader, are in a much better position to know what your team really needs, rather than taking a wild guess and getting it completely wrong.
Every wellbeing intervention needs to start with understanding. Understanding the problem, understanding the people, and then developing the solution. Too often, we see wellbeing initiatives that start with a solution and wonder why it doesn’t work - but one size does not fit all when it comes to mental health!
There are things that will likely help some people in the workplace to better handle any mental health issues they’re experiencing, such as exercise classes, promoting a better work-life balance, and providing confidential and easily accessible mental health support for those who want it.
But real mental health support in the workplace begins with open, honest and judgement free communication and an understanding of the people you’re trying to help.
If you’re able to foster an environment where conversations happen naturally and conflicts are resolved in a healthy manner, those foundations will help to develop a workplace that supports positive mental health - rather than being the cause of stress, anxiety and depression.
Two final reminders…
First, if you are struggling with your mental health and need support, please reach out to a mental health support organisation that’s available for you 24/7. You can find a list of resources here.
Second, if you’re a founder, people manager or HR professional who wants to better help your team members with their mental health in the workplace, we can help with that! Our consultancy work uses positive psychology practices to help you to understand what makes your team tick and develop initiatives that are actually going to help. Reach out for a chat if you’re looking for support!