Mental Health: An Often Oversimplified Notion
If the title of this article were ‘Considering Physical Health and Work’, you’d probably expect it to be of an encyclopaedic length to even scratch the surface. When we discuss mental health, however, there is no such understanding of the complexity of the phenomena, and it is often oversimplified or misunderstood.
Many could be forgiven for reading the words ‘mental health’ and associating the phrase only with topical concepts that capture the zeitgeist, such as teenagers suffering anxiety blamed on social media, or people suffering depression due to isolation enforced by the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns. The reality of mental health is of a complexity and magnitude that is difficult for anyone to comprehend. This is for two main reasons:
- it is often invisible.
- scientific understanding of the biological processes that offers explanation is still in its infancy.
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines mental health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. This definition allows us to think of mental health as a fluid state of mental well-being which can be underpinned by specific mental illnesses (that may come and go just like physical illnesses). These are also temporarily affected by environmental factors and physical health. Evidence suggests that mental and physical health are heavily interlinked, with poor mental health being named as a risk factor for chronical physical conditions and vice versa.
[Mental] Health and Safety
Understanding mental health allows us to greater appreciate its bearing on individuals and ultimately its impact on work. 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem of some kind each year in England , with 1 in 6 reporting experiencing a common mental health problem, such as anxiety or depression.  This may not entirely alarm you, particularly if you consider mental health under the broad WHO definition mentioned earlier. What may be alarming, however, is that due to the 828,000 workers suffering from work-related stress, depression or anxiety (new or longstanding), 17.9 million working days were lost. When you compare this to the 6.3 million days lost due to workplace injury, or 8.9 million days lost due to musculoskeletal injury, you may recognise the magnitude of the problem. What makes these stark statistics more poignant is that evidence suggests that the rate of work-related stress depression and anxiety has increased in recent years.
Health and safety so often focuses on safety, and quite rightly when you look at the great leaps that have been taken in recent decades in safeguarding the working environment. This should continue to be the case. However, as our understanding of mental health expands it is becoming ever more prevalent that the ‘health’ in ‘health and safety’ cannot be ignored; particularly when the prefix ‘mental’ is added.
Its Place In The Working World
Mental health is a multi-faceted concept which is deeply personal and unique to each individual. As an employer, manager or supervisor, you may be forgiven for thinking the issue is not your responsibility. However, creating a dialogue whereby workers can disclose mental health conditions they have is an essential factor in understanding any adjustments that could be made to accommodate such cases. Work-related stress can aggravate existing mental health issues making them more difficult to control, contributing to absenteeism or negative impacts on workplace performance.
Many organisations are adopting mental health and wellbeing policies, setting out targets and arrangements for dealing with such issues. This is a strong starting point for broadly setting out an organisation’s commitment to tackling mental health within the workplace. Completing a risk assessment of workplace stress can also help. This process could be accompanied by utilising the HSE’s “talking toolkit”, a tool based on their workplace stress management standards, which allows organisations to build up a picture of potential causes of stress within their workplace. The tool suggests potential actions for any areas that may be identified as a potential issue.
A workforce with good mental health can realise their full potential, cope with job-related stresses and work productively. Individuals have a responsibility to themselves to make decisions that can help maintain positive mental health in their personal life. However, the employers should equally consider mental health for both their employees and for the benefit of their businesses.
If you would like more general advice on how to support your employee’s mental health, WA Management’s Mental Health Awareness online training course is a great introductory resource. You can also get an exclusive 10% off this and our Stress Awareness e-learning course during the month of May by using the code ‘mentalhealth10’ during checkout!
Written by our SHEQ Consultant, Jake Sansom
 McManus, S., Meltzer, H., Brugha, T. S., Bebbington, P. E., & Jenkins, R. (2009). Adult psychiatric morbidity in England, 2007: results of a household survey
 McManus S, Bebbington P, Jenkins R, Brugha T. (eds.) (2016). Mental health and wellbeing in England: Adult psychiatric morbidity survey 2014.