The most up-to-date figures from the Health and Safety Executive tell us a worrying story: nearly 0.6 million workers were suffering from work-related stress, anxiety and depression in 2017-18. This contributed to forty-four percent of all work-related ill health and to fifty-seven percent of the working days lost due to ill health.
These figures not only highlight the prominence of mental health problems among UK employees. They also demonstrate the proportionately higher toll that mental health takes on the workplace, being more likely to lead to sick-days than many other illnesses.
Of course, it is worth noting that the effect of mental ill health on the life of the individual is much broader than just work. People with mental illness can struggle in aspects of their life, both at work and at home.
This is partly due to how mental health problems have the effect of isolating people through social withdrawal and fears around stigma. When we have a cough or a cold, a migraine or a sprained ankle, we know that other people will understand and empathise. However, few people talk about mental health and fewer still understand it. This makes it hard for those who are struggling to reach out.
Are things beginning to change?
Thankfully, in recent years there has been growing awareness of mental health problems, which is filtering through to the workplace.
We’ve noticed, both in our clinical work and in our resilience work, that people are becoming much more comfortable when talking about mental health. Increasingly, we’re also hearing heartening stories of people feeling greater emotional safety at work and finding their employers to be more supportive when they are struggling psychologically.
This new trend is hopefully starting to destigmatise mental health problems at work, facilitating improved awareness and understanding, and paving the way for people to recognise and respond in a positive way when they see their colleagues are struggling.
Thankfully this will help many people make a quicker return to their true selves after an experience of mental illness. But what if we can make a difference even before some people start to really struggle, and prevent the rise of mental health problems in the workplace?
What does the research show us?
Many research studies tell us that people who have high levels of resilience are somehow protected against stress. Although they still experience the same initial stress response to threat and challenge as the rest of us, they tend to struggle less emotionally and psychologically, and bounce back more quickly.
High levels of stress, particularly chronic stress, have been shown to be highly predictive of the development of anxiety and depressive symptoms. Plus, in correlational studies resilience has been found to be negatively correlated with mental health symptoms, and positively correlated with more positive indicators of mental health, such as improved well-being, psycho-social functioning and productivity.
From this we can deduce that those with higher levels of resilience are less likely to suffer from anxiety and depression, possibly through experiencing less overall stress and improved well-being.
Importantly, research also tells us that resilience can be learned, and that interventions aimed at reducing stress by building resilience can play a crucial role in improving mental health and well-being. So, in theory, teaching people how to be more resilient can protect their mental health.
So what can you do to protect your mental health?
Let’s look at some of the key skills that will help you to build resilience and reduce your chance of developing stress-related depression and anxiety. You may be doing some of these already, but not realise how important they are for your mental health and well-being.
At Ultimate Resilience our take-home message is first and foremost: connect with self, connect with others.
Connecting with ourselves through self-awareness and mastering the self-management of stress emotions, are the most important skills we need to minimise the impact of perceived threats. These skills form the most fundamental and essential building blocks of resilience.
The more readily we can recognise negative emotions, the more choice we have about how we respond. Noticing which coping strategies we use that are helpful to us and, importantly, which might drop us into further stress and anxiety also helps us to make resilient choices about how to respond to threat and challenge.
Have you ever noticed how you respond to a stressful situation? Do you consciously use skills to manage your response or do your negative automatic thought processes take over? You might find this article on the influence our thought processes have over our experiences of stress interesting.
Managing our emotions, our negative self-talk and our unhelpful coping behaviours are key to helping us manage our stress response at an early stage, and also help us to limit the long term impact of chronic stress. Strategies such as controlled breathing, mindfulness, taking time out even for just a few moments, or talking to someone we trust can help us to manage stress, get through difficult times and reduce the chances of us developing more serious or enduring mental health problems.
Connecting with others also plays an essential role in building resilience and mitigating the negative effects of stress and adversity on mental health. Positive social connections are associated with positive emotions and together these influence physical and mental health. As withdrawing socially is a common early symptom of psychological stress and distress, noticing this in ourselves and taking steps to reconnect are important strategies. This is easier to do outside work as we can choose who we spend time with. At work, knowing who we can trust and taking time to have face to face contact with them are important ways of building positive emotions and calming negative ones. Enlisting support and working together with other people can also help us stay motivated, interested and engaged.
In addition, people who spend more time doing emotionally nourishing than depleting activities tend to be more resilient. Often time spent with people we care about and who care about us, acts as a good source of emotional and psychological nourishment. Other activities that are important for self-care and build our capacity for resilience are eating healthily, taking regular exercise, doing things that stimulate or interest us. What is your self-care like? Are there areas that need more work to maintain?
With an increase in workplace initiatives aimed at supporting people struggling with their mental health, it’s also worth considering the factors that might help people to manage stress, anxiety and depression before it becomes a problem.
Evidence from research looking at the impact of resilience training in the workplace tells us that these skills can be taught, and are a useful way of improving resilience and developing mental health and well-being in employees.
In addition, it is important to also hold in mind that the actual pressures and demands that contribute to stress and anxiety are often beyond employees’ control and that organisations themselves have an important role to play in supporting employees to adapt and manage at times of challenge and change.
It’s going to be interesting to see what happens in the world of work as this shift towards openness and acceptance about mental health issues continues to rise – and it’s something we think will have a positive impact for everyone.
We’d be happy to talk to anyone who would like to support their employees in increasing their mental health. Click here to contact us.
If you would like further details of any of the research studies mentioned in this article, please get in touch.