Workplace mental health, also sometimes referred to as workplace wellbeing or corporate wellness is very much on the workplace agenda.  Here, I look at how mental health relates to the workplace and what employers and employees can gain.

Workplace stress and its link to physical and mental health problems

Jeffrey Pfeffer, Professor of Organizational Behaviour of Stanford Graduate school of Business, last year published a book, ‘Dying for a Paycheck’, in which he argues that in the western world, work is one of the leading causes of stress, and stress is a leading cause of many of the most deadly lifestyle diseases such as heart disease and diabetes.  Put frankly, he argues that stress caused by work is a primary factor in death and illness.  Prof. Pfeffer isn’t alone: his assertions are backed up by figures from the USA Centre for Disease Control, the UK National Health Service.

Further confirmation of the link between the workplace and health is that the World Health Organisation, has in 2019, classified burnout as an occupational illness defined as: “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed” (more on the implications of this later).  This doesn’t strike me as anything new.  In fact, I came to these conclusions myself long before 2018, however, what Pfeffer, the WHO and others have done is to finally highlight the gross unjustness of something that has become normalised and accepted by society: stress is not a benign side-effect of having a job: it is life-diminishing and life-threatening.

Work stress has a huge impact on mental health as well as physical health.  A recent survey of over 15,000 UK staff by the mental health charity, MIND found that 26% of respondents who self-reported as having poor mental health cited work as being the cause of their mental health problems, with a further 54% saying that it was caused by a combination of work and other factors.  These figures lead one to conclude that 75% of mental health problems in the survey sample were caused by work-related stress.


Despite this high prevalence of work stress and mental health problems, in the UK, half of employees still feel that they would not approach their line manager about their mental health and instead, cite another reason for absence (Stevenson & Farmer, 2017).  An American survey of 10,000 employees put this figure at 69% (MHA, 2017).


Even in workplaces that have few reasons for people to be stressed, there are likely to be a number of employees that suffer from mental health problems.  Globally, 13% of the world’s population, some 971 million people are thought to suffer from some kind of mental disorder according to the Global Burden of Disease study by the IHME in 2017.  Contrary to what some people think, it isn’t a disease of the West: while reporting of mental health is far less in the developing world, mental health problems are likely to be far more prevalent where life satisfaction, housing, health care, working conditions and pay are poorer.


What causes workplace stress?

This is multifactorial and can include:

  • Physical environment

    • Uncomfortable temperature
    • Lack of natural light
    • Ergonomically incorrect working area
    • Lack of access to green space
    • Dull office interior
    • Air pollution
    • Lack of appropriate resources to carry out work safely and effectively
  • Social environment

    • Unskilled management team with poor people skills
    • Unrealistic expectations of employees
    • Unclear expectations of employees
    • Social isolation at work
    • Workplace bullying
    • Workplace violence
    • Poor workplace relationship among staff
    • Lack of support in role
    • Lack of support in the event of a personal or health problem
    • Lack of flexibility or freedom at work
    • Discrimination or inequity in the workplace
  • Task-related

    • Work that is not challenging
    • Heavy workload
    • A ‘stressed-out’ workplace culture
    • Employee skill-set not matched with skill-set needed to complete work
    • Lack of opportunity for progression


Impact of work-related stress on organisations

An organisation is only as good as its workforce. The Stevenson/Farmer Review of mental health for employers, commissioned by the UK prime minister in 2017, revealed that poor mental health costs employers between £33 billion and £42 billion a year, with an annual cost to the UK economy of between £74 billion and £99 billion.

Indeed, people with mental and physical health problems take time off work or attend work but fail to perform to their best ability (this is called ‘presenteeism’).  MIND’s survey of 15,000 UK staff reported that people with health problems at work often show a lack of concentration, impaired decision-making, slower learning of new tasks, taking longer in tasks, greater conflict with colleagues and/or low levels of patience with customers.


Do workplaces have a legal responsibility for wellbeing?

Let’s see what the law says:

  • The UK government is reviewing its equality laws and Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) to better include people with mental health problems
  • In the USA, through the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act, workplaces have a duty to protect all employees from certain workplace hazards. The federal government also has measures in place to protect people with mental health problems in schools and workplaces.
  • In both countries, there remains a loophole with stress at work or school not being accounted for in workplace health and safety law. However, with the World Health Organisation now categorising burnout as an ‘occupational disease’ caused by poorly managed stress, workplaces worldwide are more open to legal action than ever-before.  Stress management must be high on the workplace agenda.

Government recommendations on workplace stress and workplace mental health

The UK government has endorsed two tiers of standards: Core and Enhanced.  I quote from the Stevenson/Farmer Thriving at Work report, 2017:

Core standards

We believe all employers can and should:

  1. Produce, implement and communicate a mental health at work plan that promotes good mental health of all employees and outlines the support available for those who may need it.
  2. Develop mental health awareness among employees by making information, tools and support accessible.
  3. Encourage open conversations about mental health and the support available when employees are struggling, during the recruitment process and at regular intervals throughout employment, offer appropriate workplace adjustments to employees who require them.
  4. Provide employees with good working conditions and ensure they have a healthy work life balance and opportunities for development.
  5. Promote effective people management to ensure all employees have a regular conversation about their health and well-being with their line manager, supervisor or organisational leader and train and support line managers and supervisors in effective management practices.
  6. Routinely monitor employee mental health and wellbeing by understanding available data, talking to employees, and understanding risk factors.


Enhanced standards

Our long term ambition is that many employers can and will go beyond our mental health core standards outlined above. We therefore recommend that public sector employers and the 3,500 private sector companies with more than 500 employees, deliver the following mental health enhanced standards. Together, this will ensure the core and enhanced standards reach around 46% of the working population who work in these organisations.

We suggest these employers can and should:

  1. Increase transparency and accountability through internal and external reporting, to include a leadership commitment and outline of the organisation’s approach to mental health.
  2. Demonstrate accountability by nominating a health and wellbeing lead at Board or Senior Leadership level, with clear reporting duties and responsibilities
  3. Improve the disclosure process to encourage openness during recruitment and throughout, ensuring employees are aware of why the information is needed and make sure the right support is in place to facilitate a good employer response following disclosure
  4. Ensure provision of tailored in-house mental health support and signposting to clinical help, including digital support, employer-purchased Occupational Health or Employee Assistance Programmes, or NHS services, amongst other sources of support.

Larger employers also have significant influence through their supply chains, customers and contractors, and can use this influence to encourage and support smaller employers to implement the mental health core standards, as well as sharing resources and knowledge. Many smaller employers will also aspire to, or be able to implement, the enhanced standards.


Mental health first aid, employee assistance programmes, corporate wellness or yoga: which should we choose?

Many employers still struggle to know how best to approach the issue of stress, mental health and wellbeing in the workplace.   With there being a diversity of factors linking to stress and wellbeing, employers need a multi-pronged approach addressing both prevention and treatment coupled with accurate data collection and analysis on staff wellbeing.

Brain Happy carries out staff focus groups and wellbeing surveys in organisations worldwide.  In addition, Brain Happy’s Feel Great @ Work e-learning course helps employees to build skills in resilience, self-care and stress-reduction by enabling people to build a personalised set of tools.  Utilising the techniques of positive psychology, neuro-linguistic programming and performance coaching, employees can tailor the course to their own values, needs and experiences.


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