Mental Health Europe’s Director Maria Nyman shares insights on how to promote a positive work environment to improve workplace mental health
The benefits of promoting positive workplace mental health, as well as the existing psychosocial risks linked to work and employment, are widely acknowledged. Most of us will also know from our own experience the important place that work takes in our lives and how it impacts our mental health and well-being – for better or worse.
What is a psychosocial risk in the workplace? Put simply, it is an occupational hazard that affects the psychological well-being of workers. In Europe, the main psychosocial risks factors in the workplace include heavy or unmanageable workload, unrealistic expectations, role ambiguity, organisational changes, low job satisfaction and personal accomplishment, lack of recognition, poor work-life balance, interpersonal relations and support at work and workplace violence, including harassment and bullying. When one or many of these factors become part of our everyday lives they can lead to stress, anxiety, depression, burn-out, somatic health issues or even, in severe cases that go unaddressed, suicide.
Despite this, there is still poor recognition of the importance of good management for mental health in most workplaces across Europe and many employers and employees lack knowledge and awareness on how to create mentally healthy workplaces and how to address and minimise the risks. This is why mental ill health has become one of the leading causes of absenteeism from work and early retirement all over Europe. On top of this, getting back to work after a period of mental ill health is often a challenge due to lack of support. This can lead to a negative spiral for mental health and leads to long-term unemployment and exclusion from the labour market.
We spend a lot of our time and lives at work and if we are not satisfied, feel overwhelmed or lack support or recognition this will have a major impact on our overall health.
Work-related stress is the second most reported health problem in the workplace in Europe. The human and social costs that come with mental ill health are too important to be ignored. Moreover, the costs for employers and society in terms of absence from work and presenteeism (being less productive or effective at work due to mental ill health) are huge.
Our mental health is influenced by different social determinants including factors which are not always related to work, however, there is a lot that can be done in the workplace. Creating mentally healthy workplaces starts with understanding and commitment at a senior level. Fostering mentally health working conditions begins with looking at how the culture of the workplace and work organisation impact on the wellbeing of all employees.
Research has shown that even the simplest mental health promotion programmes are cost-effective in improving the mental health and productivity of workplaces. Managers have a key role to play here in supporting an organisational culture that promotes positive mental health. Having a good manager can help employees to better cope with work-related stress or mental ill health and there are good training programmes available that can equip managers with the skills and confidence they need to support people showing signs of distress.
So, what can and should be done?
The most important but also difficult challenge is the stigma surrounding mental health in society. Stigma leads to discrimination and negative attitudes. Self-stigma is very common as well, preventing people from seeking help or speaking openly about the difficulties they face. Although fighting stigma will require awareness- raising throughout society, managers can contribute by creating a culture of openness about mental health, which should not be a taboo but a normal topic for conversation, since mental health affects everyone, employers as well as employees.
For this to happen there is a need for support and commitment at board level. The organisational structures within workplaces also play a crucial role in the wellbeing of employees since they lie at the heart of communication and leadership. Simple adjustments allowing employees more control over the way work is done can be good for productivity and the mental health of everyone.
I would like us to come to a point where we can talk as openly about our mental health as we do about our physical health and where mental health is a cornerstone of any public health initiative. We need a European-wide anti-stigma campaign supported by the European Union and its member states. We need information about mental health at work which is accessible to all employees and employers, so they know where to go if they need help and support. Training of front-line managers and scaling up of promising practices in the field would be a good place to start.
Mental health at work should be everyone’s concern: there is no “us and them” – because we all have mental health and it should be treated as an asset and protected in our workplaces. Mental Health Europe is a European non-governmental network organisation committed to the promotion of positive mental health, the prevention of mental distress, the improvement of care, advocacy for social inclusion and the protection of the rights of (ex)users of mental health services, persons with psychosocial disabilities, their families and carers.
Find more about work on mental health at work at www.mhe-sme.org
Mental Health Europe