Mental health problems affects one in four people in the UK every year. As we spend so much of our time at work, it is extremely likely that these mental health issues seep into the workplace. Not only can it be difficult for those going through mental health problems to stay in work, but working with or managing someone who is experiencing mental health problems can also be a challenge.
Better understanding of what exactly mental health is and how it can affect people is needed. Ideally, the person affected should be able to talk to other people in the workplace about how they are feeling and managers should be able to discuss these types of issues with their staff. However, in practice, many people don’t feel they can talk to their employer for fear of being judged, and from an employer’s point of view it can be tricky to look out for your employee’s wellbeing without coming across as invasive.
How to look after your mental health
Looking after your mental health means looking after yourself. What this means may vary from person to person but there are some things that help most people.
1. Value your relationships
Connecting with others is good for our wellbeing, and most people feel better when they share how they are feeling with other people. Try to connect with those around you as much as possible, and don’t rely too much on just texting or online chat, sometimes face to face really is best.
Being open about any problems you are experiencing and sharing the burden with others can also make you feel better. Once a person opens up about a mental health problem they are experiencing, they often find that others have had similar problems, or will know other people who have. The statistics suggest this is hardly surprising, yet many still feel there is stigma attached to these problems. By being open, you are helping break down the barriers of communication and may even be enabling others to feel more comfortable in discussing their mental health.
2. Eat well and exercise
Mind and body are connected, so taking care of your physical health can also help you feel better. Doing exercise keeps you in good shape and releases endorphins, which make you feel good. It can also help you sleep better, which is really important for staying mentally well.
Eating a healthy, balanced diet is also good for your physical and mental health. As eating and sleeping are often affected when people feel mentally unwell, some people who struggle with mental health problems (or have in the past) find that having a fixed routine of eating, sleeping and exercise helps to ground them and keep them stable.
3. Do things you love
Some mental health problems cause the person affected to focus their attention inwards. By doing an activity you enjoy, you can distract yourself from your worries and look outwards. This could be an activity you enjoyed as a child, or you could take up a new hobby. Becoming good at an activity or producing something as a result of a hobby (e.g. a cake, a cushion, a door frame) can also boost your self-esteem, and doing an activity with other people can help you connect with others.
4. Help others
Another way to look outwards is to help other people. This could be in as big or as small a way as you like. Small acts of kindness can improve the lives of others and this in turn can make you feel good.
5. Ask for help
Asking for help should not be a negative thing or a sign of weakness, it should be a natural reaction to realising you need help. This help might be small, such as asking a friend to accompany you to the supermarket, or a doctor’s appointment, or it might be bigger, such as going to a counsellor. Either way, telling others about your problems can help you feel that you are not alone.
If you find you are struggling with mental health and it is affecting your work, the advice above still applies. Try to ask for help by talking to someone at work about how you are feeling and how specifically it is affecting your work. You will probably find that people are more supportive than you imagined. If your work is a source of stress, you can mention this, but also try to focus more on doing things you love outside of work. Always make sure you are eating properly and doing exercise.
How to look after the mental health of your employees
An employer can help look after the mental health of their employees by encouraging the steps above. They can also put in place their own initiatives both to help people stay well, and deal with the situation when employees are suffering from mental ill health.
1. Encourage healthy eating and exercise
Employers can encourage healthy eating and exercise in various ways. This can depend on the size of the organisation and the resources available, it can also depend on the interest of employees. However, employers should try to set an example where possible and encourage employees to get involved.
Making sure that everyone takes proper breaks is really important for workplace wellbeing. Providing a separate space where people can relax or eat is a good way of separating work time with break time. If you provide your staff with any food, try to make it as healthy as possible (e.g. free fruit instead of free biscuits). You could also organise team activities involving sport or exercise such as walking days, football matches or yoga classes.
2. Encourage open dialogue
Your employees should feel able to come to you if they have a problem, and that is unlikely to happen if you rarely have contact with them. Line managers are really important here and should be trained if possible in mental health and what they can do if they think an employee might be having a mental health problem.
3. Know the law
If your employee is suffering from a mental health problem they may be protected under the Equality Act 2010, which could mean you are legally required to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ for them at work. Read more about the Equality Act 2010 and your legal obligations here.
There are many organisations offering support for those suffering with mental health problems such as MIND, the Mental Health Foundation and Time to Change and a useful guide for employers on dealing with mental health at work can be found here.
If you are a member of staff at Imperial, you have access to CONTACT, the staff counselling, stress management and mediation service. See this page for more details on how we can help.