Mental health and wellbeing at work is one of the most important issues facing all of us. Global organisations, national organisations, small organisations, trade unions, politicians, mental health organisations, employers, and, of course, employees, their families and friends are all becoming increasingly concerned about mental health and wellbeing in the workplace.
Managing mental health and wellbeing at work starts with understanding what mental health and wellbeing are. Our mental health and wellbeing can change not just from day to day, month to month, and year to year, but at key stages and changes in our lives; some key life stages can adversely impact on our mental health and wellbeing.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines mental health as: “A state of wellbeing in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to make a contribution to her or his community”. Our mental health affects the way we experience the world; how we think, feel, and behave towards ourselves and others. WHO defines mental health as a ‘state of wellbeing’ and just as physical health is intrinsic to wellbeing, so is mental health.
But is wellbeing the same as wellness?
“When you think about wellness, think prevention and health. When you think about wellbeing, think happiness,” says Susie Ellis, chair of the Global Wellbeing Institute.
Certainly, happiness is important, but there is more to wellbeing than the positive feelings that come with happiness. In 2012, Cardiff Metropolitan University professors Rachel Dodge and Annette P Daly et al published their report The Challenge of Defining Wellbeing. Having reviewed and analysed past attempts by other researchers to define wellbeing, they concluded that “it would be appropriate for a definition of wellbeing to centre on a state of equilibrium or balance that can be affected by life events or challenges”. Consequently, they define wellbeing as “the balance point between an individual’s resource pool and the challenges faced”.
In other words, wellbeing occurs when a person is able to enjoy life and has the resources to draw on to manage life’s ups and downs without feeling overly stressed. Therefore, an important component of wellbeing is resilience; the ability to cope with, as well as bounce back and recover from, difficulties and challenges. One of the key aspects of mental wellbeing is our social wellbeing; the ability to build and maintain good relationships with others. Social wellbeing is the extent to which you feel a sense of belonging and social inclusion. The UK Faculty of Public Health suggests that social wellbeing is “the basis for social equality and the antidote to issues such as racism, stigma, violence and crime” and that it is dependent on, amongst other things, “the norm with regard to interpersonal relationships in a group, community or society, including respect for others and their needs, compassion and empathy, and authentic interaction”.
Another feature of wellbeing – just as important as social, mental, and emotional wellbeing, but not so widely acknowledged – is spiritual wellbeing. Spirituality refers to a sense of being connected to something bigger and more everlasting than yourself. Distinctions are often made between mind and body but when it comes to mental health and wellbeing and physical health and wellbeing, we can’t think of them as separate entities. Poor physical health can lead to a person developing mental health problems. And poor mental health can have a negative impact on our physical health and wellbeing. A physical health problem can impact on our cognitive and emotional abilities; adversely affecting our daily lives, our work, and our relationships. Conversely, if our mental health is suffering as a result of, for example, stress, depression, or anxiety, we are less likely to eat and sleep well and may be less physically active which, in turn, can impact our immune system and so our ability to resist infections and illness can be depleted. Just as when we neglect and ignore our physical health, we can become physically unwell, it’s also the case that if we ignore or suppress difficult feelings, we can become physically unwell.
When we are exposed to stressful experiences or trauma, we can, without realising it, banish the experience to the unconscious; it’s too much to deal with and it’s pushed down to the basement of our minds. Eventually – sometimes years later – the stressful/traumatic experience can present as a mental health problem, for example an anxiety disorder. But a stressful or traumatic experience can also manifest itself as a physical disorder. In the same way that the repression of stressful experiences can become a physical problem, physical health can impact on our mental health.
Issues such as a poor working environment, unrealistic deadlines, poor communication, poor interpersonal relationships, too much responsibility, and a lack of management support can significantly impact on the wellbeing of people at work. People get stressed. Especially if they’re also dealing with difficulties and problems outside of work. People get stressed when they feel overwhelmed or unable to cope as a result of pressures and demands that are unmanageable; when they feel they have little control over a situation.
It doesn’t have to be this way! In recent years, there’s been plenty of interest and research telling us how to turn things around. In 2017, for example, an independent review – Thriving at Work – led by mental health campaigner Lord Dennis Stevenson and Paul Farmer, chief executive at Mind and chair of the NHS Mental Health Taskforce. Thriving at Work sets out a framework of core standards that all UK employers, it suggests – no matter what their size or the industry in which they operate – can implement to address workplace wellbeing and mental health. Of course, it’s not all down to organisations and their leaders to up their game. There’s a lot that individual employees can do to develop their own wellbeing and resilience. However, although there’s plenty that each of us can do to develop and maintain our wellbeing, we’re not invincible. For one reason or another, any of us can experience a mental illness but there is help and support out there.
Managers can also help and support employees with mental health problems. There’s a lot to take into account, but if you are a manager, do be reassured that no one is expecting you to know all the answers, or to know as much as a trained mental health professional. But having some knowledge, understanding, and training in mental health will help you know when and how far you can help, when to ask for support, and when to refer someone to other agencies.
Employers that genuinely promote and value wellbeing and good mental health and support people – whatever their culture, beliefs, and abilities – with mental health problems are more likely to create conditions that allow for everyone to give of their best, to be committed to their organisation’s goals and values, to be motivated to contribute to organisational success, to feel valued and supported, and to have a positive sense of their own wellbeing.
This is an edited extract from Mental Health and Wellbeing in the Workplace: A Practical Guide for Employers and Employees, by Gill Hasson and Donna Butler, published by Capstone, a Wiley Brand
Image by Cottonbro for Pexels
As featured in OnOffice 156, Autumn 2021. Read a digital version of the issue for free here