Why Mental Health Matters at Work

By Becca Owens

Mental health struggles have a unique way of affecting every area of life, including work. We can’t simply turn off any potential feelings of panic or depression for nine hours a day, so it can be a struggle to pursue healing from a mental health disorder and remain engaged and productive at work.

Because mental health disorders are a silent struggle for many, and because of the stigma sometimes associated with them, work environments aren’t always safe places for people struggling with mental health. Coworkers and employers may have no idea that the people they spend 40 hours a week with are struggling deeply and need support for true healing. However, when companies begin prioritizing mental health within their work environments, they — as well as their employees — reap great benefits.

How Mental Health Affects the Workplace

So many people who are struggling with a mental health diagnosis never mention it to others, including coworkers. Unlike other health complications that may be more obvious to others, mental health struggles often are deeply rooted internally before they manifest in any visible ways. Common mental health diagnoses that could be affecting your coworkers include the following:

  • Anxiety disorders – like phobias and panic disorders
  • Behavior disorders – like ADHD, conduct disorders or Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD)
  • Eating disorders – like anorexia nervosa, bulimia and binge eating
  • Co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders
  • Mood disorders – like depression, bipolar disorder and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
  • Psychotic disorders – like schizophrenia1

In 2016, over 18 percent of US adults — 44.7 million people — were estimated to have a mental illness.2 Mental illnesses have a wide range of severity and symptoms. However, with it affecting nearly one in five people, it’s likely that most every workplace is affected by mental illness in some way.

Many people who have a mental health disorder either don’t realize it or don’t receive treatment for it. They may not know what benefits are available to them for treatment, and they may be afraid of what others will think if they speak up and pursue treatment. Some may even fear losing their job if they admit their struggle to their employer. Whether employees are open about their struggle or not, their lives are being affected, including their work performance. Depression and anxiety — two of the most common mental illnesses — cost the world economy an estimated $1 trillion in lost productivity in 2016.3

Employers may be overwhelmed with how to help their employees and change the work environment, but the incentive is there. By being proactive with changing how you view and cultivate mental health, you can increase your company’s productivity and be more likely to retain employees who would otherwise leave their jobs for more suitable work environments.

How to Come Alongside Employees in Mental Health

people-working-in-office-600wAlthough addressing mental health at work can feel intimidating, it’s the healthiest choice for all parties. For employers who are ready to affect change in their companies, there are several practical steps to take to move toward a safe and productive work environment, including the following:

  • Educating the entire company – By providing education company-wide, employers help all employees, as well as themselves, understand the scope and effect of mental health.
  • Adopting sensitive language – Part of education involves the words we use to describe behaviors and struggles. It’s not uncommon to hear insensitive jokes about mental health, but most people are not aware of how this kind of talk may be affecting their peers. Switching to language that’s sensitive and understanding can be a huge step in the right direction.
  • Fostering an environment of openness – Because mental health is so commonly a private, hidden struggle, many people don’t feel comfortable sharing their challenges at work. Employers can take steps to make work feel safer to share all of life.4
  • Leading with personal stories – The best way to begin changing a work environment is for the people at the top to share their own stories of mental health. By seeing leaders being open with their own struggles, employees will feel the freedom to do the same.5
  • Establishing a no-harassment zone – Many people report feeling harassed or bullied by coworkers regarding their mental illness. Employers must make sure this doesn’t happen so their employees learn to support one another and feel safe at work.
  • Allowing for flexible hours – Employees who are pursuing treatment may have trouble finding adequate time for therapy appointments. Employers who allow for flexible work hours make it much easier for their employees looking for healing.2
  • Incorporating mental health into workplace policy – By codifying allowances and expectations regarding mental health, employers help their employees know what to expect and decrease their fear about being open with their struggle at work.
  • Prioritizing people – Although companies must focus on productivity and profit, putting employees first is dually beneficial. Employees who feel valued will automatically invest more into their work and the company, allowing the business to be more profitable in return.

How Employees Can Affect Change in Their Work Environment

As an employee, it can be scary to struggle secretly with mental health. You may inwardly hope for change but feel powerless to see it come to fruition. However, if you’re willing to speak up and start the conversation, it’s likely to initiate small changes that can lead to bigger, lasting change. A good place to start is by sharing a little about yourself with someone you already trust. Investing in healthy work friendships will make you feel better and build a healthy rapport as you begin letting others see your struggles. It’s important to be willing to help others in their journeys, too, as you’re likely not the only one with a mental health diagnosis.

If you or someone you love is struggling with a mental health issue and you are ready for help, please call our 24-hour toll-free helpline. We want to help you find healthy outlets for healing and affect change in your workplace.


1 “What to Look For.” MentalHealth.gov, Accessed March 15, 2018.

2 “Mental Illness.” National Institute of Mental Health, November 2017.

3 “Mental Health in the Workplace.” World Health Organization (WHO), September 2017.

4 Hoang, Xuan Minh. “4 Ways to Support Good Mental Health in the Workplace.” Undercover Recruiter, Accessed March 15, 2018.

5 Rauch, Joseph. “Why Employers Need To Talk About Mental Illness In The Workplace.” HuffPost, August 20, 2017.

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