Work And Mental Illness – A Complete Guide

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If you are struggling with work stress and it’s affecting your personal life, or you are an employer who wants to increase mental health awareness in the company, this guide is your one-stop guide for everything you should know.

There’s always been some stigma around mental health, and people around the globe have avoided discussion around it for years. But in recent times, the awareness for mental health has increased drastically, and people now understand that mental illness is as big a problem as any physical issue.

It is estimated that around 26 percent of American adults over 18 have some kind of mental illness.

Work And Mental Illness - A Complete Guide

Mental illnesses can be of many kinds, including bipolar disorder, major depression, or dysthymia. In some extreme cases, untreated mental illnesses have also resulted in suicides. 

According to WHO (World Health Organization), suicide is the second biggest cause of death among people aged 15 to 29. People with mental health issues can also die prematurely by two decades.

In this guide, we will be discussing mental illness related to your work, including the reasons behind it, like work culture, your coworkers, your work type, and many other things.

I will also share some ways to take care of your mental health and some of the ways for managers to support employees’ mental health.

What Is Mental Illness?

Before we dig deep into work-related mental illness, it’s essential to understand mental issues in general and learn their types. 

Mental illness, also called mental health disorders, can be linked to many different conditions—any disorder affecting your thinking, mood, or behavior can be termed a mental disorder.

Common examples of mental illnesses include anxiety, depression, bipolar disorders, eating disorders, schizophrenia, and other addictive behaviors.

Mental health issues are pretty common, and any individual can expect to encounter them numerous times in their life. But a mental health issue becomes a mental illness when the signs magnify and result in increased stress and hindrance in your daily life.

Work And Mental Illness - A Complete Guide

Mental illness can cause many issues in your life by causing changes in your normal mental functionality. It can affect your well-being, work, and relationships. 

The most commonly used treatments for mental illnesses are psychotherapy (talk therapy) and certain medications. 

People usually don’t know the symptoms of mental illnesses; that’s why they end up ignoring them at the initial stages. Some common symptoms of mental illnesses are:

  • Decrease in concentration
  • Feeling down and sad
  • Excessive confusion
  • Extreme feelings of worries, fears, or guilt
  • Withdrawal from activities and friends 
  • Frequent mood changes 
  • A feeling of low energy and tiredness 
  • Problems in sleeping
  • Encountering delusions (Detachment from reality), paranoia, or hallucinations
  • Trouble coping with daily problems 
  • Issues in relationship 
  • Trouble understanding situations 
  • Alcohol use disorder or drug abuse
  • Significant eating habit changes
  • Excessive anger
  • Suicidal thinking

In many cases of mental illness, you can also experience some physical effects. For instance, back pain, stomach pain, and headaches are pretty common in mental disorders like anxiety.

At last, before jumping on the main issue: work-related mental illness, let’s discuss some general causes of mental health disorders:

General Causes Of Mental Illness

Many different factors are causing mental illnesses, including a range of environmental and genetic:

  • Inherited Traits: It is commonly found that mental illness patients have blood relatives also suffering from mental illness. Some specific genes may have a higher chance of you developing a mental illness with your life situation triggering it.
  • Environmental Exposures: Exposure to certain inflammatory conditions, environmental stressors, alcohol, toxins, or drugs while a baby is in the womb can be linked to mental illness sometimes.
  • PTSD: Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a very prominent form of mental illness that generates from some past trauma of your life which can be anything from an accident or sudden demise of a loved one.
  • Brain chemistry: Brain chemicals like neurotransmitters carry signals to different parts of the body and brain. These chemicals travel through neural networks, and when they get impaired, the functioning of nerve systems and nerve receptors change; it leads to emotional disorders like depression.
Work And Mental Illness - A Complete Guide

Effect Of Work On Mental Health

People often push themselves to the limits, both mentally and physically, to excel in their work. Physical issues like hypertension, diabetes, and other cardiovascular conditions result from increased stress and deteriorating mental health. 

As technology is rapidly invading our lives and almost all industries are adapting to video cons and meetings at odd hours (especially due to the COVID-19 pandemic), employees around the globe are overwhelmed as working time is bleeding into their personal time. Even before the pandemic, the concept of a work-life balance was receing a death blow in many industries.

Poor mental health also has resulted in burnout of an employee resulting decrease in productivity. In a survey in 2014, it was found that in America, jobs are the second leading cause of stress

In various researches, it is found that stress is the harmful emotional and physical responses of an individual when the requirements of their job do not match their resources, capabilities, or needs.

Factors like increasing work demands, tight deadlines and long working hours contribute to the employees feeling overwhelmed, worried, or drained, negatively impacting their mental health. 

Work And Mental Illness - A Complete Guide

Work stress also magnifies when the employee thinks there’s an imbalance between their effort and reward. In this situation, employees feel they are not getting rewarded or getting recognition even after putting in an immense amount of effort (sometimes the employer may not even be aware of this); these things accumulate in anxiety and stress. 

I have made a list of some important factors that affect an individual’s mental health in an office environment:

Relationship Problems: Superiors

You don’t leave a bad job, you leave a bad boss! 56% of Americans report having a bad manager, and these people have a higher risk of being under stress and having mental health issues.

Dealing with a difficult boss is among the major factors affecting employees’ mental health. The best way to resolve this issue is by effective communication. Often your boss may set some unreasonable targets, but a sincere conversation can make a lot of difference, and both you and your boss may agree on a deadline good for both parties.

You will also see many employees becoming stressed because they were assigned tasks unrelated to their skill set or job profile. Companies try to get the most out of an employee by making them multitask, which eventually affects their productivity and delivery time. 

If you don’t communicate well and there’s always a bridge between you and your boss, then the hierarchical nature of organizations can cause mental issues.

Relationship Problems: Colleagues

When it comes to causing stress, colleagues are only second to bosses. Colleagues knowingly or even unknowingly can prove to be harmful to your mental health. In fact, colleagues can be even more difficult to deal with than bosses as your performances are directly pitted against each other. 

Communication is the key for this situation, too, and you can reach a mutual agreement whenever some disagreement arises. You need to mutually agree there’s no point in an internal rivalry that can hurt the team’s performance. Still, if the bad blood with your coworker persists even after discussion, you should bring it to the notice of the superiors.

Work-Family Conflict

It can be really difficult for your families too when your work interferes with your personal time. It is becoming challenging for people to find a decent balance between family responsibilities and work.

When you start managing your time well between your work and domestic issues, there are high chances that you face less stress.

Work And Mental Illness - A Complete Guide

High Demand For Performance

Many times managers have unrealistic expectations from their employees, especially during corporate reorganizations. These unrealistic expectations put unreasonable and unhealthy pressures on the employee, resulting in increased mental stress.

When employees are expected to give longer hours with Increased workload under intense pressure all the time, it becomes a really difficult task. It becomes even more difficult when the employees are expected to do all that at the same pay and limited or no perks. 

Too much traveling and time away from home and family can also be contributing factors to poor mental health of employees.

Job Insecurity

Job insecurity is probably the most prominent part of an employees’ stress other than the work itself, especially during the covid times where many industries are shutting down.

Besides that, frequent economic transformations also put immense pressure on employees to keep upgrading their skills and justifying their salaries. In the last 50 years, technology has turned our world around and almost every five years, there is a new buzzword in technology, making it difficult for employees to keep pace.

Other factors like takeovers, rightsizing, reorganizations, mergers, and other significant changes in the company create stress among employees as the companies try to survive the competition. Job security affects everyone, from the mailroom guys to the CEO.

Bureaucratic Constraints

Almost every organization has bureaucratic systems with rules and regulations that are a huge part of the system to ensure continuity of business. But instead of being helpful, the rules sometimes prove to be constraints causing stress for employees.

Some more factors include job overload, uncomfortable working conditions, sheer monotony, and lack of control over your work process. The decrease in your work role uncertainty will reduce job stress and work-related psychological disorders like anxiety.

Companies that adapt to the new norms and address the mental wellness of the employees at the workplace through new workplace policies will do much better in the future than the ones that don’t.

Work And Mental Illness - A Complete Guide

How Is The Mental Health Of Employees Getting Affected by Covid-19?

Work from home has become a very popular phenomenon in recent times because of the Covid-19, and tilll just a few months back, when the lockdown was in full force, almost all employees were working from home. 

Even now, when lockdowns are being removed in most countries nearly 13.4 percent people are still working from home in the US.

With the work-from-home facility, most people had imagined that there will be an improvement in the work-life balance of employees. What has happened instead is that employers have ensured that the time saved by employees on commutes has instead been used for doing more work! Increased burnouts are going to be a likely resultant of this.

Another major problem is that employees cannot classify their professional and personal life due to working from home. There are always blurred lines between your work hours and personal time. 

According to a report by Oracle, an American multinational computer technology corporation has reported that 85 percent of people in their corporation are having an effect on their happiness, sleep, and relationships due to COVID.

Let’s discuss some more ways COVID affects the mental health of the employees while working from home.

Loneliness & Isolation 

Loneliness is a huge issue for people working from home, especially the ones who live alone. Not being able to interact and work with people regularly impacts the mental health of employees a lot. Loneliness can cause a lot of frustration and anger issues in people and also some kind of emptiness. 

Work And Mental Illness - A Complete Guide

Loss Of Workplace As A Community

The Loss of workplaces as a community has been a huge loss because of constant working from home. Most workplaces are diverse and inclusive communities, where all the employees identify as a group’s part. 

Most organizations have meeting spaces such as the coffee machine or the cafeteria. People tend to exchange different ideas and discuss common topics of interest that enhance a sense of well-being. 

Even when there are some issues in your personal life, work, and workplace, the community can be a solid support system for you, and having that community taken away can create a type of emptiness.  

There are still virtual meetings, but they are generally pretty short and to the point with almost no social interaction. It is impossible to get the same social interaction from virtual meetings that you get from stopping at the desk of a fellow employee and exchanging pleasantries.

Not every employee is struggling from work from home, and some might be even enjoying it, but some employees have a sense of desolation that sneaks in after the first few months. A sense of belonging is imperative for the mental well-being and overall productivity of an employee.

Work And Mental Illness - A Complete Guide

Cultural Isolation Due To No Cultural Boundaries 

The advancement of technology has enabled people around the globe to work together, and the whole world has almost become like a giant village. Now employees can be stationed anywhere and still be productive. 

The time zone utilization makes it really easy for the organizations to get the best out of various employees, but technology comes with problems, too, especially for the employees. 

Remote work means that people speaking different languages will be working together, and therefore the communication with colleagues and managers will become more challenging. 

In fact, the cultural differences amongst different employees in the team can also cause differences in attitude. For instance, in many countries, superiors are treated as bosses, while employees have more of an informal relationship with their superiors in some countries. 

Employees that are from a different culture may feel a bit themselves as a misfit and left out. This type of communicative and cultural isolation results in depression and low-performance matrices. 

The team spirit dies in this situation, and the engagement among the coworkers also decreases; therefore, there’s little Job satisfaction which results in mental illnesses like depression.

Work And Mental Illness - A Complete Guide

No Routine/Monotonous Routine

While working from home, most people complain about not being able to follow a routine as work time bleeds into personal time. In fact, in many cases sleeping and eating time also changes a lot. All these changes can have adverse effects on your mental health. 

On the contrary, many people also complain of having a monotonous routine due to working from home. Many little things that look great in the beginning then result in deteriorating mental health.

For instance, spending a lot of time at home looks like a great idea at first but after a while, not being able to go outside and seeing the same 2-3 faces 24/7 proves to be bad for your mental health.

It also results in frustration and many fights amongst the family members.

How Can Companies Help In Improving Employees’ Mental Health?

Till now, we already know that mental illness is a very big problem in any workplace and the various ways by which it is caused. Another thing we learned is that mental illness not only affects the mental well-being of the employee but also affects the people around them and their productivity.

Any organization where most employees suffer from any type of mental issue won’t perform well in the long run; therefore, employers need to apply different plans and schemes to improve their mental health. 

In fact, as an employer, it should be your moral responsibility that your employees should not suffer from mental stress. Mental illnesses caused by your work are curable and also result in better performance of the company because of fewer sick leaves, better employee turnover, lesser job-related accidents, and increased employee productivity.

Work And Mental Illness - A Complete Guide

Ways To Identify Mental Illness Among The Employees

The first thing that comes before curing mental illness is identifying the ones suffering from it, and you need to remember it’s not an easy task as most people won’t volunteer. There’s still a lot of stigma around mental illness, and people feel ashamed to admit suffering from it.

Everyone is trained to stay professional at work from childhood and not let your personal issues affect your performance. Employees fear being vulnerable, people judging them, or even that their job can be at risk. 

But if employers make efforts of their own, they can identify the people who have mental illness and provide them with the support they require to prevent more severe problems down the road.

There are different symptoms for different people when it comes to mental illnesses. Most people would think that an employee who is usually seen crying or getting upset over little things is depressed or hurting, but depression or any other mental illness can be seen in the form of anger or irritability too. 

The primary thing to look after is the sudden behavior change in a person. For instance, if you see an employee who is always consistent and reliable, all of a sudden becomes absent-minded or sloppy, then there’s a high probability that something is keeping their focus away from work.

Work And Mental Illness - A Complete Guide

Whenever employers see these types of problems, most of them treat them like regular

performance issues and therefore setting more expectations and issuing warnings. They even let go of the employee if the issues persist after warnings. 

By this approach, you may lose a good employee. Many times you need to look beyond behavior and find the main causes behind performance problems.

Below are some factors that could be signs of mental illness in an employee:

  • Falling asleep
  • Lacking motivation
  • Missing work
  • Confrontational
  • Lacking focus
  • Frequent texting/calls not related to work
  • Withdrawal from colleagues
  • Too much complaining
  • Arriving late/leaving early from work
  • Irritability
  • Crying

How To Help Your Employees?

Before you reach out to your employees, make sure you have a sensitive approach and don’t make it feel like a forceful discussion. Try to address the behavior change first and let them know you care if something is wrong in their personal life, then there are chances of them opening up. 

Once they state their problem, don’t just instinctively say, “it’s going to be fine,” or try to help them too much. Instead, listen to the employee carefully, let them clarify the problem, and ask if they have taken any steps to improve their situation.

After that, you can tell them about the benefits/help you provide about mental health as a company to the employees.

You can help the employees in the following manner.

Validate Their Feelings

People tend to feel a bit ashamed when admitting they are struggling, and their own superior telling them and addressing that it’s a hard situation means a lot to them, and they may require help. 

Work And Mental Illness - A Complete Guide

Brainstorm Self Care Plans

Try to discuss and find some self-care things to cope with burnout and stress from work. Some instances are interests, hobbies, and different ways of socialization. 

Review Their Support System 

You would find that many people tend to get away from their friends and loved ones because they think showing vulnerability will be a burden for their loved ones. Try to encourage them to get in touch with their friends and family.

Connect Them To A Resource 

If your company has a support system or hired professionals to treat mental health issues, you should let the employee know about it.

Note: If your company does not have any system to address mental health issues, you may consult your employee to get help from other sources.

Continue To Check-In 

Keep checking on them once in a while and see if they are making progress. Knowing that someone cares helps a lot in this type of situation.

Build A Better Working Environment 

We have discussed how you can help an employee with mental illness, but as we know, prevention is better than cure; therefore, it’s imperative to build a working environment where employees feel safe, and their mental well-being is taken care of.

Set An Example

People hesitate to show they are struggling when they don’t have an example in front of them who shows vulnerability. As a manager/superior, always address the issue of mental health and let people know that it’s fine to have difficulties and everyone requires support.  

Try to share your examples if you have ever struggled with mental health problems at work or even outside of it and how you overcame them.

Work And Mental Illness - A Complete Guide

Train Other Managers To Help

The best way to improve awareness about mental health in your organization is to train people in higher positions to identify the signs of mental illness in their employees and respond to those particular situations.

Better Work Policies 

Great working policies go a long way in ensuring the mental well-being of the employees of a company. If you see employees in your company more stressed and frustrated, you might need to make some differences in your policies. Some recommendations are:

  • Increasing the amount of paid leaves.
  • Count the leaves taken due to mental health issues as sick leaves.
  • Make the process of taking leave much easier.
  • Teach your employees more about the benefits you provide as a company for mental health.
  • Arrange extracurricular activities within the company.

Wrap Up

We are in the 21st century, and mental illness should not be taboo anymore in this era. Mental health needs to be made a household topic that can be discussed anywhere and anytime, and your work hours are no different. 

We spend more than fifty percent of our lives on work, and if it’s affecting your mental health in any way, it needs to be addressed at the earliest as it is not something that would just pass away.

Work And Mental Illness - A Complete Guide

It’s also important that organizations in every sector take more responsibility for the mental health of their employees and build a better working environment for them and provide a support system when they are struggling.

Feel free to share this article with anyone you might think is going through the same issues we discussed.