Mental Health in the Work Environment.

Whether you love it or loath it, work is one of life’s inevitabilities. As you may expect, the entire experience is often littered with plenty of peaks and troughs. The highs of being offered a promotion contrasted with the lows of missing a crucial deadline. For the majority of us, we will experience both at least once. However, as with many of life’s experiences, the negative can dramatically decelerate and impede our abilities.

Unfortunately, work related stress often debilitates our executive capacity. This usually manifests as a self-propagating cycle, wherein stress can catalyse emotional instability and nervousness, which in turn further inflames stress and inhibits our concentration. For me, I often associate these feelings with being purely and utterly overwhelmed. Naturally, this can have disastrous consequences for our work life. For many of us, we may just accept this as part and parcel of a busy career. Externally, the term ‘suck it up and deal with it’ flies around more commonly than in should. However, do we actually have to deal with this as a condition of normality? No, we do not. 

Workplace stress is common and widespread, often aggregating prior to big presentations and important deadlines. It piles up on us as the workload gradually reaches a tipping point.

this is to be expected, especially for an intense work position. However, feelings of depression and anxiety shouldn’t be developing in these circumstances. If they do, we may need to take an important physiological and psychological health check.

At any given time, approximately 17% of working-age adults display symptoms associated with mental illness1. Women are disproportionately affected, being almost twice as likely to have a common mental health issue compared to men2. Further, around 20% of people are reported to take a day off due to stress, yet 90% of these individuals cite a different reason for their absence3. Thus, the fear of any judgement regarding poor mental health clearly remains. This is despite the fact that in the UK in 2019, stress, anxiety and depression were responsible for over 50% of all work-associated illness and 55% of all workdays lost due to ill employee health4. This likely correlates with 2019/20 estimates indicating that 828,000 UK based workers were affected by work-related stress, anxiety or depression4, which increased from the 602,000 reported cases in 2018/195. Why are these numbers so high? There are many potential obstacles which may contribute to these worrying statistics. 

A 2017 report highlighted that employees with a long-term mental health condition are twice as likely to lose their job than those who do not. In the UK, this equated to around 300,000 individuals2. While mental health awareness has been increasing considerably over the past decade, these numbers really underline an urgent need to amplify national efforts, especially due to the considerable health burden of psychiatric disorders. Salomon et al., first reported on this way back in 2013. In a study which was published in The Lancet, the authors asked over 60,000 participants from all around the world which diseases, injuries and disorders they considered to be the most disabling6. A disability weighing scale (0.00 to 1.00) was then curated representing the severity of the disease (1.0 being the highest). As per the report, the disorder with the highest disability rating was schizophrenia (0.778), with an untreated spinal cord lesion (0.732) and severe multiple sclerosis (0.719) following closely behind. Startlingly, severe anxiety (0.523) and depression (0.658) were considered to be more disabling than moderate multiple sclerosis (0.267), a moderate-to-severe amphetamine dependence (0.486), and severe chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (0.408). Further, moderate psychological problems were also reported to be considerably debilitating. For example, moderate anxiety (0.133) was reportedly more debilitating than a concussion (0.110), while the disability weighting for a moderate depressive episode (0.396) was higher than that for anorexia nervosa (0.224) and tuberculosis (0.333). Despite this worrying numbers, it is crucial to emphasise here that this data was based on general public surveys. As such, the data will display inherent variation. However, I do believe that the study underlines a clear association between mental health disturbances and our quality of life. 

What can I do?

Please do not allow the ‘stigma’ and previous cultural norms discourage you from seeking help. If our negativity and depressed feelings transcend both our work and personal lives, it is important to identify and/or actively seek out a supportive network. While discussing mental health within the working world is becoming more common, we can often worry about the opinions of others. Before speaking up, I was concerned that my colleagues would view me as incapable of successfully doing my job. A such, my anxiety was compounded by the paranoia of potentially being fired as a direct result of asking for help (despite this being illegal in many countries). Now, when my mental health inhibits my ability to work, I will immediately discuss it with my employer. After all, how can an employer adapt and adjust to our needs if we refuse to speak up? I appreciate this can be daunting, but it is absolutely crucial. If it concerns you, perhaps consider communicating with human resources instead. 

Developing a coping mechanism can also be critical. This could be anything easily employable to help you through a stressful workday. For me, I often go to the gym during my lunch break. Any negativity that I was dragging around due to a stressful morning is often eradicated following the exceptional endorphin hit I get from an intense workout. If that doesn’t sound enjoyable or you would prefer to just have some time to relax and unwind, then do so. I also sometimes find a quiet spot to read a book or go for a walk; both of which really help clear a busy mind for the afternoon ahead. Regardless of what you decide, I emphatically encourage you to take all of your lunch break. While this isn’t necessarily straight forward for some jobs, be strict with the time and make sure you give yourself that opportunity. 

If neither of these helps, I would also potentially consider seeing a therapist or psychiatrist. While some people report having bad experiences (myself included), this is often due to a clashing of personalities. This shouldn’t be surprising, as we will never fully connect with everyone we meet. I see a psychiatrist once a month and it really helps me put things into perspective. It can take some time to find a specialist which suits you, but it is often incredibly beneficial to supplement alongside some of your own coping mechanisms. 

If you feel as if all is lost despite implementing some of these strategies, consider finding a more supportive work environment. It is difficult to admit when a job doesn’t fit properly, but we will never be able to force pieces into place which are not meant to go together. Do you remember the last time you were happy at work? If not, perhaps it is time to talk to some friends and colleagues regarding your current situation. If others feel your work life hinders your happiness, perhaps it is time to move on.

In summary, while some individuals may gaslight us into self-blame, often spitting hateful thoughtless comments such as “we all get depressed sometimes”, or “be careful not to play the victim card”, the majority of people – including employers –  are empathetic, and they are there to listen to you. If any negativity comes out of you stepping forward, then perhaps that will provide you with an answer of what to do, regardless. 

References:

  1. Moran P, Rooney K, Tyrer P, Coid J. (2016) ‘Chapter 7: Personality disorder’ in McManus S, Bebbington P, Jenkins R, Brugha T. (eds.) Mental health and wellbeing in England: Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey 2014. Leeds: NHS Digital.
  2. McManus S, Bebbington P, Jenkins R, Brugha T. (eds.) (2016) Mental health and wellbeing in England: Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey 2014. Leeds: NHS Digital. 
  3. https://www.mind.org.uk/news-campaigns/news/work-is-biggest-cause-of-stress-in-peoples-lives/[Accessed 28th March 2021].
  4. https://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/causdis/stress.pdf [Accessed 28th March 2021].
  5. https://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/overall/hssh1819.pdf [Accessed 30th March 2021].
  6. Salomon JA, Haagsma JA, Davis A, de Noordhout CM, Polinder S, Havelaar AH, et al. Disability weights for the Global Burden of Disease 2013 study. Lancet Glob Heal 

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