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We need to talk about mental health at work

31 Mar 2020 By Sophie Hennekam

A new study has found the majority of companies are not doing enough to help employees manage their symptoms. Sophie Hennekam reports

Increasing numbers of individuals are experiencing mental health issues. For instance, it is estimated that in the US one in five adults experience mental health conditions in any given year. In the UK one in four people experience a mental health problem each year, and in England one in six people report experiencing a common mental health problem (such as anxiety and depression) in any given week. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) women are especially at risk, with higher rates for common mental disorders such as depression, anxiety and somatic complaints. 

In 2017, the WHO estimated that mental health issues cost the global economy $1trn in lost productivity each year. European research by the EU contribution to the World Mental Health Survey Initiative shows that employees with mental health conditions reported 3.1 absenteeism days per month, compared to one day per month among those without such conditions. 

Mental health conditions often affect an employee’s functioning in the workplace. At Audencia, for a study titled Coping with mental health conditions at work and its impact on self-perceived job performance, co-authored with Sarah Richard and François Grima, we analysed 257 open question surveys to better understand how individuals with mental health issues navigate the workplace and cope with their mental health while in employment, and how their conditions affect their work. Mental health conditions can fluctuate, meaning one day someone is fully functional, while another it might be difficult for them to get out of bed. Although the participants in our study worked in different sectors such as healthcare, retail, hospitality, administration, customer services and education, we observed several patterns in the way they dealt with their mental health conditions at work. 

Some individuals explained they used substance abuse and self-harm to relieve tensions. Others tried to suppress or hide their symptoms of their condition at work, which was tiring and stressful and sometimes distracted them from their actual work. Some individuals forced themselves to continue to work when feeling unwell. They stated that even when they felt they should take time off, they still felt obliged to continue working. Participants explained they tried to focus on their job and keep busy as it helped them get through the day and perform normally. Working became a sort of distraction from their problems and sometimes helped to override their mental health conditions for a while. 

However, over time, the participants usually had to rest and look after themselves rather than ignore their symptoms and continue working, as it negatively affected their performance at work. Indeed, these strategies were not very successful over the long term in that they did not help our participants navigate the workplace while struggling with their mental health. 

The participants explained that their mental health conditions had indeed affected the quality of their work, the pace with which they conducted their tasks and the number of mistakes they made. They often found it difficult to concentrate or stay focused on their tasks. They also experienced big shifts in energy and were therefore sometimes slower and more forgetful. 

However, other strategies were more successful in allowing participants to juggle both workplace demands and their mental health needs. For example, individuals who accepted their condition, rather than fighting it, and who allowed themselves to take some time off earlier on fared better at work. Also, proper medication and counselling had a positive effect on their work performance. Similarly, mindfulness activities such as yoga or breathing exercises helped regulate symptoms. The use of humour while interacting with others at work and transparent communication with their direct manager and co-workers allowed them to explain to others how they were doing. Finally, some individuals adopted a compensation strategy in which they tried to compensate for their reduction in speed, quality or reactivity at work during some difficult episodes by working harder and doing more when they felt well.  

It is clear that being open about one’s mental health at work, accepting it and allowing oneself to take time off and get treatment helps individuals regulate and reduce their symptoms. Unfortunately, many employees with a mental health condition do not ask for treatment. In addition, many organisations do not provide workplace adaptations that would help individuals struggling with mental health to meet the demands of their job. And sadly, the majority of companies are unprepared to support employees with mental health conditions. Therefore, raising awareness, providing relevant workplace adaptations, transparent communication and organisational support are key to improving the working lives of people with mental health conditions. 

Sophie Hennekam is a professor at Audencia Business School

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