Mental Health in the Workplace: Foundations That Spark Conversations
Mental Health in the Workplace: Foundations That Spark Conversations

Mental Health in the Workplace: Foundations That Spark Conversations

Employee Well-being   — 5 MIN


Do you have a safe place in your organization to discuss issues around mental wellness? If not, you’re not alone. A study conducted by Businessolver reports that 68 percent of employees are concerned that talking about a mental health issue will adversely affect their job.

Part of the reservation on the part of employees is the lack of understanding about the meaning and various types of mental illnesses. It’s important to support your people with the foundational knowledge so they feel prepared and confident to talk about mental health. The more people openly talk about it and share their stories, the less stigma the topic carries, and the more everyone learns.

Mental health and well-being defined

In Deloitte’s study Mental Health and Employers: Refreshing the Case for Investment, they offer these designations:

Mental health is the ability for an individual to cope with stress, work productively, and contribute to the community. Mental health is determined by a range of socioeconomic, biological, and environmental factors.

Well-being is someone’s level of feeling good and functioning well and comprises each individual’s experience of their life. Well-being can be both subjective and objective.

7 types of poor mental health

The American Psychiatric Association and the National Institute of Mental Health list the following as common types of mental illness*:

Anxiety Disorders: The most common type of mental illness globally, anxiety disorders consist of intense, excessive, and persistent worry and fear about everyday situations. They often involve episodes that reach a peak quickly, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Depressive Disorder: Experiencing a loss of interest, a decrease in energy, or feelings of worthlessness are part of depression syndromes. This disorder affects roughly 34 percent of people around the world.

Bipolar Disorder: Formerly called manic depression, this is a mental health condition that causes extreme mood swings that include emotional highs (mania or hypomania) and lows (depression).

Schizophrenia: This affects 8 percent of the human population. When schizophrenia is active, symptoms can include delusions, hallucinations, disorganized speech, trouble with thinking, and a lack of motivation.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): Being involved in any type of harrowing event—either experiencing it or witnessing it—can cause PTSD. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares, and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event.

Eating Disorders: These are illnesses characterized by serious disturbances in eating behaviors and related thoughts and emotions. The most common types are anorexia, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder. At any given time, several million people are affected around the globe.

Substance Use Disorder (SUD): This is a condition involving uncontrolled use of or addiction to substances such as illicit drugs and alcohol to the point of interfering with day-to-day life and despite detrimental results. People with SUD may be conscious of the problem but struggle to stop even if they want to.

*Please note that these designations are not intended to be all-encompassing or diagnostic in any way. For more information, please contact your mental health services provider.

Mental health in the workplace

Mental health and well-being in the workplace affect every employer and, even if indirectly, every employee around the world. The more everyone begins to understand the role work plays in employee mental health, the sooner proactive steps can be taken to improve employee well-being. This is especially true during the COVID-19 pandemic due to increases in social isolation and stress related to the sudden shift to a remote workforce.

The impact of mental health on the workplace

Employers in the U.K. lose an estimated £6.8 billion due to absenteeism brought on by mental health issues. In the United States, major mental disorders cost the nation at least $193 billion annually in lost earnings alone. And according to estimates by The Carter Center published in The Psychiatric Times, mental illness will cost the world $16 trillion by 2030.

The impact of the workplace on mental health

While mental health is a nuanced conversation, considering that it can be influenced by biology, psychology, and socioemotional considerations, there is evidence that decreases in mental wellness are also spurred by the work environment.

Here are some common workplace factors that can negatively affect employees’ mental health and well-being:

Workload: Too much work leading to employee burnout or too little work resulting in boredom or feeling like they're not having an impact can affect an employee’s mental state.

Role: An employee’s position can cause undue stress or anxiety, mainly if there's ambiguity, conflicting objectives, or a lack of adequate training.

Belonging: When an employee doesn’t feel they can fully be themselves at work and bring with them their authentic lived experiences, their well-being can suffer. A lack of psychological safety creates a divide between the employee and the person they are at home, which can be exhausting.

Relationships: Personal relationships, including those with leadership, colleagues, and subordinates, may cause excessive mental strain, as can poor communication and inequities due to gender, race, and other marginalizations.

Conditions: Poor working conditions can be a significant contributor to mental and physical fatigue. Examples include issues around noise, climate, and air quality.

Conflicting Demands: A person experiencing conflict between direct and indirect managers or team members may experience a fracture in their emotional stability. Or, the conflict can occur due to outside demands from home, school, or family.

With the link between work and our mental health and well-being clear, it’s incumbent upon leaders to increase awareness and provide support channels for assistance, and for employees to open themselves up to discussing mental health in the workplace and supporting their colleagues as allies.

The impact of COVID-19 on our mental health and well-being

The first anniversary of the World Health Organization's declaration that the virus reached global pandemic status occurred on March 11, 2021, and to say the mental health of people around the world has been hit hard is a gross understatement. It may not even be possible to understand the full impact of the virus on mental health and well-being for several years.

By the numbers

A study compiled by Qualtrics and conducted in Australia, France, Germany, New Zealand, Singapore, the U.K., and the U.S. reports the following findings:

  • 42 percent say they’ve experienced a decline in their mental health as a result of COVID-19.
  • Those new to remote working are 30 percent more likely to experience declines in wellness versus those who did not make remote work changes.
  • The unemployed have the highest levels of decline of any group at 49 percent.

All organizational levels are experiencing around the same rate of mental decline:

  • 44 percent of individual contributors
  • 40 percent of C-level executives
  • 40 percent at the management level

The need to respond to issues around mental health in the workplace

Meeting the needs of those whose mental health and well-being are negatively impacted by the pandemic is everyone’s responsibility.

At the highest level, companies can embrace and empower organizational conversations around employee mental health and provide learning opportunities to help their people assess and take care of their well-being. And while many companies offer employee assistance programs, the next step is to incorporate proactive dialogue and check-ins, and improve and simplify access to mental health resources.

Managers can allow more flexibility for varied work conditions, decrease workload demands as needed, and lower the stress barrier to help those struggling under the pressures caused by the pandemic. Managers must also be trained to better watch out for signs of mental distress and know how to connect employees with available resources.

Employees can share their experiences, serve as allies to others, seek out support, and be vocal about their needs. After all, our organizations are what they are because of the employees who dedicate their time, energy, and brain space every workday.

Leaders: let’s make it a priority to support our employees' whole selves, including their mental health and well-being. This begins with helping everyone learn the foundations of mental health in the workplace in order to spark important, long-overdue conversations.

If you or someone you know or work with is struggling with their mental health, please visit The Center for Workplace Mental Health for resources and assistance.

If you'd like to learn more about Blue Ocean Brain's mental health and well-being learning resources, please reach out to, or schedule a consultation with a learning specialist today.