In any given year, about one in five people will experience a mental health problem or illness. Fortunately, many employers have gradually come to realise that supporting mental health in the workplace is an important part of their role.
This makes sense not just for reasons of your own wellbeing as an employee. There is clear evidence, for example, that poor mental health in the form of depression and anxiety is linked to reduced productivity, and how well you are able to do your job.
Now our research has found that if the organisation you work for actively promotes good mental health (and provides support to those who need it) it is more likely to benefit financially.
This means that workplace initiatives designed to promote good mental health among employees can provide firms with a measurable return on their investment. That is, they are likely to recoup any money they spend.
The trouble is that many employers do not know which kinds of interventions are the most worthwhile, both in terms of their effectiveness and from a financial perspective. As a result, many firms – and most importantly, their staff – may be missing out.
For example, research suggests that cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can be a cost-saving way to address depression. There is also good evidence that involving occupational health professionals is effective in reducing sick leave and encouraging people to return to work after a substantial leave of absence.
Overall, employees will benefit from working for an organisation where there is a good understanding of the relationship between mental health and productivity. According to one study, initiatives that help employees to manage work-related stress seem to be the among the most effective.
Other research suggests that specific conditions including the option of part-time employment and having greater autonomy over tasks can help address the negative effect of presenteeism, where employees spend more time at work than is necessary.
It is also important to note that everyone will experience workplace mental health differently, and that rolling out initiatives and interventions is still not enough. To have a meaningful long-term effect, all the members of management teams need to be genuinely and actively involved.
To begin with, they need to clearly show employees that their mental health matters. They also need to create a sense of comfort and ease at work in which employees feel happy about coming forward with any mental health concerns. Managers should be trained to recognise issues and provide support for their staff.
They should also be alert to workplace bullying, which can increase the risk of depression and anxiety – and even override the effectiveness of any well-intentioned systems that may be in place.
But those systems are a good start. The workplace is where millions of people spend a large proportion of their time – even virtually, with so many now working from home at least some of the time.
And widespread changes in work arrangements since the pandemic add their own challenges to mental health. Working from home can present new issues related to feeling isolated and disconnected. There can be problems that emerge from the difficulties of separating home life from work life, or juggling domestic duties and caring responsibilities.
The pandemic has also led to many workplaces implementing specific COVID-related measures to ensure workers are safe and feel comfortable returning to work. Mental health is an important part of this, especially in sectors such as healthcare, where burnout has been higher.
Looking ahead, after the strains of lockdowns and social restrictions, it will be more important than ever to focus on workplace mental health and ensure there are effective, tailored interventions in place. As our research shows, it’s not only the responsible thing to do – it is also good for business.