Mental health and productivity in the workplace 

10 August 2021

This is why businesses of all sizes across a growing number of industries are offering a dynamic range of mental health support to their employees. To truly understand how wellbeing impacts productivity, we first need to clarify productivity in a work setting.   

Mental health is how we think and feel inside. When we are feeling mentally well, it enables us to cope with the ups and downs of life in a positive way. Having good mental health allows us to make the most of our potential and play a full part in relationships, the workplace and our community. 

Although we all have times when we may feel stressed, afraid or down for a number of reasons, if these feelings continue unchecked they may become a mental health issue . For example, the kind of changes you may see in a person experiencing poor mental health at work could include:

  • Reduction in productivity
  • Making more mistakes than usual
  • Isolating themselves or avoiding colleagues
  • Looking fatigued
  • Taking on too much work

The WHO reports mental health issues are increasing globally. More of us than ever before are likely to encounter a mental health problem at some point in our lives. Fortunately, with the right supports and treatment it can be overcome. For others, genetics, trauma, discrimination, physical illness or other factors mean mental illness is something they will have to manage with the support of their employer in the long term. 

But what causes mental health issues in the workplace? The answer is complex and linked to the individual however ongoing periods of stress may be a contributory factor for some people. 

Stress is a term very often associated with the workplace. It is a feeling of being overwhelmed and unable to cope with emotional or mental pressure. 

The important thing to remember is stress is a normal human reaction. Small amounts of stress have been found to be good. It may boost your brain power leading to improved productivity, motivation to succeed and better resilience

Stress only becomes negative when employees have this feeling for a sustained period and do not have the skills or support needed to help. It is easy for people to fall into poor ways of managing stress including:

  • Drinking alcohol more often than usual
  • Over or under eating
  • Smoking
  • Gambling
  • Using drugs 
  • Developing compulsive habits like shopping 

Unchecked, stress can lead to reduction in productivity, increased anxiety or depression. However, with the right wellbeing supports employees can recognise and take healthy, corrective action to relieve the symptoms like:

  • Speaking to their line manager
  • Exercising
  • Focusing on achievements
  • Setting SMART goals
  • Recognising presenteeism

No matter the cause of mental health difficulties in the workplace they are likely to impact productivity. In the US it is estimated poor mental health costs the economy $31-51 billion per year in lost productivity.

So, the business case for looking after your employees wellbeing could not be clearer. Introducing wellbeing supports employees mental health and in turn boost productivity.. Studies have shown the following to be particularly beneficial:

    1. Identifying barriers to productivity

It is very difficult to improve any metric without a base measurement and understanding of the root cause. Begin by analysing what might be impacting productivity without shying away from mental health. Anonymous surveys are a useful way to understand what the underlying issues in your business may be. Some of the following topics may be a useful place to start:

  • How are employee wellbeing and stress levels?
  • Are employees clear on employer expectations?
  • What do they feel are bottlenecks to productivity?
  • What are their opinions on collaboration and communication within the workplace?
  • Do they feel management is enabling productivity?

2. Develop a culture of wellbeing 

Research by Gallup and CDC show negative organisational culture is leading to poor mental and physical health. This in turn leads to higher absenteeism and turnover making reaching business goals even more difficult. 

In order to see any improvement in productivity from supporting employee wellbeing, businesses must work on culture first. Workplace culture is the foundation of mentally healthy workplaces. Without a positive culture, wellbeing programmes are unlikely to flourish. Employees must feel comfortable sharing how they feel, and a supportive culture is key to that. 

  • Some tips for developing a culture of wellbeing include:
  • Assessing the current culture strengths and weaknesses
  • Involving employees in design and implementation of a new culture
  • Evaluate managers as well as employees to ensure they are genuinely supportive
  • Focus on the importance of work/life balance
  • Encourage socialising at work

3. Employee Assistance Program

Although the goal is to reduce mental health challenges in the workplace, it is unrealistic to believe they are going to be eradicated. A key element of improving workplace wellbeing is to offer mental health services to employees when they need them. Employee or expat assistance programmes are a great way for employees who may be struggling with work or non-work related issues to get confidential support with the goal of resolving the issue before it becomes overwhelming. 


4. Flexible Working Policy

Providing employees with a good work and life balance has been shown to improve productivity. It reduces stress levels, prevents burnout, and improves motivation to mention only three benefits. 

Policies like hybrid working where employees can work from home, even after restrictions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic are lifted, flexible working hours to enable employees partake in family life or encouraging breaks in the working day are all shown to improve productivity.

As we mentioned at the beginning of the article, improvements in productivity are often linked to working smarter and not harder.