We know the workplace can be a challenge at times, and we know that a good work-life balance contributes positively to our mental health, and looking after our wellbeing both in and out of work. But while we’ll all face stressful tasks, difficult demands, long days, and wish for the weekend to sleep in, some of us might find that these stressors turn into something a whole lot more difficult to manage.
While the workplace certainly has its perks - providing routine, a sense of purpose, a community that contributes to goals together, and much more - it ain’t always breezy is it? There are many issues that can bubble up in the workplace from conflict with colleagues, stress and burnout, to long hours, big demands, and poor working environments.
Stress can be easily accumulated at work, the build up of minor stressors can lead to lots of stress, long-term stress or even burnout. What can start as a slow build can sometimes feel like it begins to snowball, and we can find that we’re facing mental health issues like depression, anxiety and even physical ill-health - frequent colds or flu, digestive issues, migraines. Between the pressure to prove ourselves at work, and the personal pressure to earn a living, when it comes to ill-health, physical or mental, it’s often overlooked in favour of persevering through or even a lack to ability to get the support, like long hours meaning we miss GP surgery times or the fear we’ll be judged for asking for help.
And the stats don’t lie. A survey by the Mental Health Foundation found that working long hours left over a quarter (27.1%) of people feeling depressed, while over a third (34.3%) reported experiencing anxiety.
The good news is, those conditions are often manageable with the right support, and even preventable with the right workplace policies and habits in place.
The common issues that arise at work?
Whether it’s due to difficult workloads, demanding long hours, communication breakdown, conflict with colleagues, or a lack of clarity in expectations, work-related stress affects us all from time to time, sometimes stronger than others. If recognised early on, and support is provided it can be fairly straight forward to bounce back from, but left to linger it can escalate and become a bigger problem for us.
Unsupported stress, stress for a long time, and overexertion can lead to burnout. With symptoms similar to depression, burnout can reduce our performance, leave us feeling unmotivated and uninspired, and even resentful of our jobs - not to mention the sheer exhaustion it causes from the physical, mental and emotional toll it takes on us. It can be difficult to overcome on our own, and left ignored can lead to depression and anxiety for some.
Depression in the workplace is unfortunately common, not necessarily as a result of the workplace, but many with depression can find their symptoms are worsened in challenging environments - which the workplace can be at times. Those with depression can be more susceptible to work-related stress, and even burnout, as the condition can prevent those from taking good care of themselves, feeling able to ask for help, or even disclosing their condition at work.
Another common issue is anxiety - 58% of working professionals experience at least mild symptoms of anxiety. Anxiety can make daily tasks more difficult to complete, can impact employee performance, and worsen stress levels at work. Likewise, stress can worsen symptoms of anxiety, further impacting the employee struggling and create further issues within the workplace - for individuals, teams and employers.
What workplace causes of mental illness can we control and prevent?
Excessive workload and poor work-life balance
Heavy workloads, a too high work pace, high time pressures and continual and short deadlines, all can create a climate of stress and anxiety in our job, which may lead conversely to lowered productivity. Long work hours or inflexible hours can create conflicting home/work demands and distress in those employees who are juggling between work and life. Particular job roles requiring shift working or often being away from home for work may be at greater risk of exhaustion and may have troubles managing work with personal life.
What to do?
Ensure employees have enough time to rest and catch up with their families and alternate intense work schedules with quieter times. Put limits on working hours, plan breaks during the working day and allow flexible working arrangements. Aim for job demands, deadlines and targets that are always adequate and achievable.
Low job control and depersonalisation of work
This includes lack of variety in the work, under-use of skills or being under-skilled for work. Depersonalisation of work is recognised as one of the main determinants of burnout, making us feel disconnected from our role and our daily tasks. This may also be caused by a lack of control over our job design or workload and a limited participation in deciding our own work.
Unclear organisational objectives, unclear job roles and poor communication within the organisation or team can lead to lack of motivation to pursue our activities, which become more stressful and energy draining.
What to do?
Allow people to be at the centre of their job, allowing them to participate in job design and decision making is essential to maintain their activity and motivation, with frequent and open communication. Also, investing in staff development is key for a person-centred approach to work.
Job insecurity and financial stress
Uncertain work conditions may be detrimental to our mental wellbeing, causing financial stress for precarious job positions and worry for the future. The risk of losing our job can be a significant source of stress and anxiety and can possibly lead to depression, when our job doesn’t guarantee us safety and stability. Workplaces might currently be struggling financially because of the global crisis, but preserving their employees' mental health is always a priority.
What to do?
Commit to pay them on time and, in case it was not possible, make sure to notify them in advance and support them to cover essential expenses they need to meet. Ensure all employees have an adequate pension scheme to avoid worrying about the future.
Poor working conditions
Those working in physically risky or unhealthy conditions are likely to report mental health struggles over time. Having to deal with unsafe equipment and resources can lead to stress, anxiety and worry for our own physical health. Staff health and safety should always be regarded as a top priority. Also inadequate physical working conditions, such as poor lighting, excessive or irritating noise, poor ergonomics, a too cold or too hot environment can lead to mental discomfort when prolonged. The recent shift from offices to home offices has led several people to work in inappropriate conditions, without professional equipment like ergonomic desks and chairs and without a proper distinction between work and personal spaces.
What to do?
Make improvements to obvious flaws in the workplace to contribute to employee wellbeing and business performance. If possible, offer an alternative space for people to work in the best conditions and invest in equipment, with a return on productivity as well as wellbeing.
Toxic interpersonal relationships
This may include dysfunctional relationships within teams, such as social or physical isolation of members of staff, limited support from supervisors or colleagues or rather an authoritarian supervision and poor line management. In the worst scenarios, it can also include workplace bullying, harassment, discrimination, exclusion and inequalities, which still are too diffused in several workplaces. Conflict among coworkers is normal and cannot be avoided under a certain measure. This is not problematic and can actually be a sign of an open and communicative workplace. It is when conflict becomes a continuous cause of distress for employees which become victims of unacceptable behaviours, that a culture and policy framework change in the workplace is necessary.
What to do?
Enforce respectful and inclusive communication policies, encourage healthy use of boundaries and empathy within the workplace, and equip employees with conflict resolution skills, so that in times of dispute resolution can be reached healthily and civilly.
Before you go: We can do our best to prevent these issues from rising, but it won’t mean work never feels challenging or even distressing. It won’t mean we’ll never experience these issues again. But being able to successfully recognise issues, provide sufficient support and create working cultures that prioritise employee wellbeing and satisfaction can help to reduce the risk of workplace issues. And when they strike outside of work, we can lean on workplace support to help us out too.