The link between work and mental health
Work can play a huge role in your overall health and welfare. In addition to the financial benefits, your job can add meaning, structure, and purpose to your life. It can also provide you with a sense of identity, bolster your self-esteem, and offer an important social outlet.
However, working in a negative environment can have the opposite effect and take a heavy toll on your emotional health. Long hours, understaffing, a lack of support, and harassment in the workplace can ramp up your stress levels and contribute to mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. These problems have only been exacerbated by the pandemic and the major shifts in our working habits over the last couple of years. Many of us have spent months adapting to the new stressors of working remotely, for example, only to now have to re-adjust to commuting and working onsite again. It’s left us feeling tense, unhappy, and worried about the future and how we spend our days.
Just as work can impact your mental health, so too, your mental health can affect your work, impacting your job performance and productivity. In fact, recent estimates suggest mental health issues cost the global economy $1 trillion annually in lost productivity, absenteeism, and staff turnover.
For most of us, a lot about our workplace environment remains outside our control. The culture at work is established by those in senior positions above us and we often feel unable to speak out without fear of judgment or risking our jobs. But whether your mental health issues are caused by your workplace or stem from elsewhere and are affecting your performance at work, there are steps you can take to care for yourself and protect your well-being. With these tips you can learn to talk to your employer about mental health, cope with common challenges at work, increase your resilience, and better strive to fulfill your potential—in the workplace and beyond.
Workplace risk factors for mental health
Common work-related challenges that can negatively impact your mental health include:
- Long, inflexible hours, short-staffing due to cutbacks or unfilled vacancies, or an ever-increasing workload.
- Working remotely with no clear separation between work and personal time.
- A toxic workplace that fosters bullying, harassment, or abuse.
- Lack of training or guidance for the role you’re expected to fulfill.
- Limited or unclear communication from management about tasks, goals, or decision-making.
- Lack of support, shortage of equipment or other job resources, or unsafe working practices.
Signs and symptoms of a mental health issue at work
We all have bad days at work from time to time, days when nothing seems to go right. You may have difficulty focusing, feel overly stressed, irritable, or unappreciated, or lack the energy and motivation to complete even the most basic task. But if this is how you feel day after day, it can be a red flag that something is wrong.
Many mental health problems can creep up on you slowly. You can get so used to feeling frazzled, anxious, and downbeat at work that it starts to feel “normal”. But ignoring the early signs of a problem won’t make it go away; it will just become worse over time, leaving you vulnerable to illnesses and other health problems, causing burnout, and damaging your job performance, relationships, and home life.
While the symptoms of mental health problems can vary wildly according to the condition and the person experiencing them, it’s important to be aware of any changes to how you’re thinking, feeling, and behaving. If you identify with several of the following symptoms in yourself (or in a work colleague or employee), it could indicate that it’s time to reach out for help.
- Decline in your performance at work. You struggle to function in your daily duties at work (as well as at home or social life).
- Trouble concentrating and thinking. You have problems focusing on tasks or experience difficulties with your memory, thinking, or even changes to your speech patterns.
- Changes in your appetite or sleeping patterns. Struggling with insomnia, sleeping too much, sudden changes in how much you eat, or relying more and more on drugs and alcohol to cope.
- Changes in your mood. You feel hopeless, helpless, on-edge, or experience uncharacteristic mood swings or even suicidal thoughts.
- Loss of interest in activities. You lose interest in aspects of your work that you previously enjoyed, quit hobbies you used to love, or withdraw from friendships and social activities. This could be accompanied by pronounced apathy.
- Fear or nervousness. You feel overly suspicious of others at work or socially, or feel suddenly nervous and fearful in certain situations.
- Increased sensitivity. You’re more sensitive to sights and sounds and try to avoid any situations that are over-stimulating.
- Unusual behavior. You feel disconnected to your surroundings, exhibit uncharacteristic, unusual, or out of control behavior, see or hear things that aren’t real.
- Unexplained aches and pains, such as headaches, upset stomach, or muscle pain.
Coping with work-related mental health problems
When stress, harassment, or mental health problems negatively affect your performance, relationships, and physical functioning at work, you may feel isolated, overwhelmed, and struggle to know where to turn. But you’re far from being alone.
Recent surveys suggest that about one in five US adults report having a mental health issue each year while 70% experience symptoms of stress. While most people never seek help, there are steps you can take today to start improving how you feel.
While some stress can provide you with the focus and energy to meet deadlines and challenges at work, too much can take a toll on your health and productivity. When you’re constantly worried about being laid off, having to work longer and longer hours, or feeling under pressure at work all the time, your mood, personal life, and job performance will suffer.
No matter how stressful your job is right now, there are ways you can relieve the pressure, lower your stress levels, and regain a sense of control. Read Stress at Work.
It’s normal to feel down or unhappy every now and then, but feeling like you’re in a black hole, hopeless and helpless, could be a sign of depression. When you’re depressed, you feel so listless and despairing that it impacts your ability to work, eat, sleep, and find enjoyment in life. Just getting out of bed in the morning can seem overwhelming.
But as bleak as things may seem at the moment, there are steps you can take to boost your mood, overcome feelings of sadness and despair, and regain a sense of hope. Read Coping with Depression.
Like stress, not all anxiety is bad. In manageable doses, it can help you face a challenging situation, such as a job interview or important presentation. But when you’re plagued by constant worrying, negative thoughts, or an overwhelming sense of tension or panic, it can interfere with your daily life and ability to perform in the workplace. Anxiety can drain you emotionally, leave you feeling nervous and restless, and trigger insomnia, headaches, stomachaches, and muscle tension.
Whatever type of anxiety disorder you’re facing, there are ways to turn off anxious thoughts and find calm again. Read: Anxiety Disorders and Anxiety Attacks.
Bullying or harassment
When bullying, abuse, or harassment occur in the workplace, it can create a hostile environment and have a damaging impact on your mood, outlook, and overall health and well-being. Whether you’re being targeted because of your gender, race, sexual orientation, or religion, you may work in constant fear, feel compelled to take time off sick whenever possible, or even want to quit, regardless of the financial consequences.
While you may feel powerless to put a stop to bullying and harassment, especially when the perpetrator is a boss or high-performing colleague, there are steps you can take to regain control. Document the negative behavior, seek support from any coworkers who’ve witnessed it, and then approach someone higher-ranking than the bully or abuser—whether that’s a manager, director, or sympathetic HR person. Read: Bullying at Work.
Are you self-medicating your problems?
When feelings of tension, fear, hopelessness, or grief start to impact your work life, it can often be tempting to try to find the easiest way to cope on your own. For many of us, that means taking a pill or pouring a drink. While self-medicating your problems can sometimes offer some short-term relief, over time it only creates more difficulties.
Whether you turn to alcohol, illegal drugs, prescription medications, or even food to change the way that you feel, there are healthier and more effective ways of improving your mood and coping with your problems. Read: Self-Medicating Depression, Anxiety, and Stress.
How to care for your mental health at work
When you’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed by the demands of work, taking time away—using personal or sick days or taking some vacation time—can help you to recharge and avoid burnout. However, if you have a persistent mental health issue, such as depression or anxiety, you’re going to need more than just a few days off.
Caring for your mental health in the workplace isn’t just about dealing with immediate mental health problems, either. It’s also about promoting well-being. Even if you’re not facing a mental health challenge right now, taking steps to care for your emotional health can help you build resilience, improve your work performance, and provide you the tools to better cope with uncertainty and challenges in the future. The following tips can help:
Switch off. Whether you’re working onsite or remotely, it’s important to strike a healthy work-life balance. That means taking regular breaks throughout the day and switching off your screens when the work day is over. Instead of making yourself available 24/7 to respond to work calls, emails, or other messages, it’s important to focus on friends and family and take the time to relax, recharge, and enjoy yourself.
Practice relaxation techniques. Relaxing and recharging requires more than just zoning out on the couch in front of the TV. To reduce the damaging effects of stress and protect your mental health, you need to activate your body’s relaxation response. This can be done by practicing a relaxation technique such as meditation, deep breathing, rhythmic exercise, or yoga.
Take care of yourself. Getting enough quality sleep at night, eating a healthy, nutritious diet, and regularly exercising can make a huge difference to your mental health—at work and beyond. These are also aspects of your life that you have more control over than many things in your workplace. The more effort you put into self-care, the better you’ll feel.
Find meaning and purpose in your work. Even if you don’t love your job, you can still find ways to derive meaning and purpose from the work that you do. Try to focus on how your work helps others, for example, provides an important product or service, or the relationships you enjoy with your coworkers. Looking for opportunities to get more training or take job-related classes can also help you to find more meaning in your work.
Try to connect and collaborate. As human beings, we crave connection. Developing mutually supportive relationships with your coworkers, collaborating as a team, and having fun together can help ease stress and bolster your mood at work. If you’re not close to your colleagues, make the effort to pool resources on projects, work closer together, and be more social during breaks and outside the workplace.
Build resiliency. The more resilient you are, the better you’re able to tolerate the feelings of stress, anxiety, and hopelessness that can be generated by problems at work. Building resilience can also help you from setbacks in your career or personal life and help you maintain a positive outlook. Rather than being a macho quality, resilience is something that requires effort to build and maintain over time.
Mental health and working at home
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, more and more of us have found ourselves working from home. While it can be gratifying to be free of the daily commute and its related expenses, there are still plenty of drawbacks to working remotely that can take a toll on your mental health.
Many people feel isolated away from the workplace, disconnected from the support and social aspects of being among colleagues. It can be extremely stressful living and working in the same place every day, especially if it’s a small space, you’re looking after young children, or you have other family members also working from home. Endless back-to-back virtual meetings, longer work hours, and feeling the need to always be “on” can also be a drain on your time, mood, and outlook.
Whether you’re working from home full-time or just intermittently, there are steps you can take to ensure you protect your mental health and make it a more productive and enjoyable experience.
Maintain a regular work routine. When you’re working from home, it can be very difficult to establish a boundary between work and home time, so many people find themselves worker much longer hours. To maintain a sense of normalcy, try to keep regular office hours, starting and finishing at the same time every day. Some people find it useful to go for a walk before starting work in the morning and then again after finishing work in the evening. It can help you mentally switch from work to home mode and vice versa.
Schedule breaks and set boundaries. Just because your desk is at home, it doesn’t mean you always have to be available. Set aside time to take a break from your screens and have lunch, for example, and then turn off your phone and computer when you’re done for the day. Try to leave time between virtual meetings so they don’t feel so overwhelming.
Establish a dedicated work space. Even if you don’t have a separate room that you can use for a home office, try to reserve a space that you can use just for work, rather than working at the kitchen table, for example. You’ll find it easier to keep to your routine and separate your work and home life.
Look for opportunities to work outside the home. If you’re missing being around other people, try working at a coffee shop or library, or renting a co-working space.
Schedule face-to-face time with your co-workers. To counter the sense of isolation, arrange regular meetings or social events where you can see your colleagues in-person and catch-up. If you freelance, reach out to other freelancers on social media and arrange face-to-face get-togethers.
How to talk to your employer about mental health
If your emotional state is impacting your ability to perform at work, you may decide that it’s time to talk to your boss, especially if it’s your work environment that’s causing the problem. However, many of us are understandably reticent about talking to others about our mental health, especially our supervisors or employers. You may fear that you’ll be negatively judged, your reputation will suffer, or your career damaged.
There also remains a stigma attached to mental health that can make it difficult to open up in the same way you would about a physical health issue. Some people view feeling stressed, depressed, anxious, or traumatized as some kind of character flaw, something to be ashamed of. But the truth is that 80% of us will experience a diagnosable mental health condition at some point in our lives. So, whether you’re aware of it or not, the chances are that your boss has or will experience a mental health issue, either directly themselves or in someone very close to them.
This has never been truer than it is now. The stress and upheaval of the COVID-19 pandemic has seen mental health problems skyrocket. Very few of us have remained untouched. Yet, thankfully, more and more people are feeling able to share what they’re going through, helping to reduce the stigma of what are normal human conditions.
Talking to your boss
Mental health and substance abuse cost companies billions of dollars each year, so it’s in your employer’s interest to listen and take steps to improve the workplace whenever they can.
How much you choose to disclose will largely depend on your employer’s personality, the level of trust in your relationship with them, and your own comfort levels. If it’s your boss who’s causing the problem—bullying, harassing, or creating a dysfunctional environment—you’ll want to approach his superior or someone in your company’s HR department.
It can also help to:
Choose the right time to talk. Find a quiet time at work to approach your employer, when they’re more likely to be calm and not stressed. That may be at the end of the week, for example, when things are winding down, rather than during peak hours or ahead of a pressing deadline. Try to schedule a time when you’re both free of distractions and unlikely to be interrupted.
Focus on your work performance. Instead of simply listing all your complaints, explain to your boss how specific conditions are impacting your ability to perform in your job. For example, you could explain how sudden changes in your duties and responsibilities have created high levels of stress or exacerbated your panic attacks.
Offer concrete solutions whenever possible. Suggest changes your boss can make to help you improve your work performance. For example, if you need to see your therapist without arriving late for work, asking for flexible hours or to work at home on certain days of the week could be a practical solution. Or, if you’re overworked due to understaffing, suggest which low-priority tasks you could skip or delegate to ensure you don’t fall behind.
Remember there’s strength in numbers. If any co-workers are also being bullied, harassed, or suffering in a negative environment, approaching your employer as a group can add weight to your voice.
Be understanding of your employer. These are stressful, demanding times for all of us. The pandemic has changed much about how we work and the “new normal” seems to be changing all the time. So, don’t expect your boss to immediately have all the answers. Allow them the chance to think about what you’ve told them, but make sure you set a time for a follow-up session.
Know your legal rights
Depending on your country or state of residence, you may have a legal right to receive reasonable accommodations to help you fulfill your duties at work. While it’s always better to adopt a conciliatory rather than confrontational tone with your employer, researching your legal position can add authority to any reasonable requests you make. See the “Get more help” section below for resources.
In the U.S.
Call the NAMI HelpLine at 1-800-950-6264.
Call the Sane Helpline at 1800 187 263.
Call Healthline at 0800 611 116.
Call Wellness Together Canada at 1-866-585-0445.
Last updated or reviewed on February 28, 2023