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Is Your Workplace Harming Your Mental Health?

When the world shut down with Covid and remote work became the norm, many people got a taste of a different life. Although it was a stressful time overall, they didn’t have the daily rat race to contend with. Long commutes and water cooler gossip disappeared. Families ate dinner together again. People discovered hobbies. As a result, we have reached a point where people want more from life than to feel they are just surviving. Since we spend most of our adult lives in the workplace, employees demand a healthier environment supporting mental health and wellness.

Mental health in the workplace is a critical and increasingly recognized aspect of overall employee well-being and productivity. Employers have a responsibility to create a work environment that supports and promotes mental health. To set the tone and be leaders in a changing shift forward.

According to the US Surgeon General:

  • 76% of U.S. workers reported at least one symptom of a mental health condition

  • 84% of respondents said their workplace conditions had contributed to at least one mental health challenge

  • 81% of workers reported that they will be looking for workplaces that support mental health in the future.

Factors that affect employee mental health

We all know work can be stressful sometimes, but where is the line between everyday work stress and a toxic environment leading to poor mental health conditions? And do we just need to reassess our idea of “normal work stress”?

The World Health Organization says the following are the main risks to mental health at work :

  • Under-use of skills or being under-skilled for work

  • Excessive workloads or work pace, understaffing

  • Long, unsocial, or inflexible hours

  • Lack of control over job design or workload

  • Unsafe or poor physical working conditions

  • Organizational culture that enables negative behaviors

  • Limited support from colleagues or authoritarian supervision

  • Violence, harassment, or bullying

  • Discrimination and exclusion

  • Unclear job role

  • Under- or over-promotion

  • Job insecurity, inadequate pay, or poor investment in career development

  • Conflicting home/work demands

Breaking the stigma

Studies show the more open employees can be on their mental health struggles, the more likely they are to receive care. Proper care is not only good on a personal level but crucial for running a successful company.

Over 80 percent of workers who receive mental health care say they’re more effective and satisfied at work.

According to the Center for Workplace Mental Health, “it’s cost-effective. When employees receive effective treatment for mental illnesses, the result is lower total medical costs, increased productivity, lower absenteeism, and decreased disability costs. The bottom line: investing in a mentally healthy workforce is good for business.”

Changing the narrative starts at the top. Those who lead companies need to get comfortable with mental health issues, take the initiative to learn, and make sure those in a position of authority are also knowledgeable. From there, it’s time to create an environment that shows acceptance, awareness, and support of these issues.

Men, Mental Health and the Narrative Around Masculinity

The silent epidemic that's beginning to find a voice is mental health issues among men. The leading factor that prevents men from seeking care is stigma and the cultural role of masculinity. Add to this an unsupportive, high-pressure workplace, it can be a recipe for disaster.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for all Americans ages 25 - 34. However, men of all ages die by suicide nearly four times more than women, and white men of all ages account for 69.68% of all suicides.

Suicide rates among males aged 25 - 44 have increased in recent years. This age range corresponds with the time that men and women often experience major life events, like marriage and parenthood, all while working hard to prove themselves professionally.

Besides suicide, men also have higher rates of substance misuse than women. When men already find it hard to seek help, working in a toxic environment only worsens the situation.

These statistics are troubling because they reinforce the notion that males are less likely to seek help and more likely than women to turn to dangerous, unhealthy behaviors. We must continue normalizing the mental health conversation for men and letting them know getting help when needed is a sign of strength.

Identifying A Toxic Workplace

How do you know if your workplace is toxic? They may be hostile, disrespectful, cliquey, discriminatory, and frequently have a significant power imbalance. The U.S. surgeon general warned that toxic workplaces affect workers' mental and physical health.

A recent study found toxic work environments have some combination of these characteristics:

  • Excessive Stress: Employees consistently experience high stress levels due to unrealistic workloads, tight deadlines, or lacking resources and support.

  • Lack of Work-Life Balance: Little emphasis is placed on work-life balance, resulting in feeling constantly overworked and unable to recharge outside of work.

  • Poor Communication: Communication breakdowns between employees creates unclear expectations, a lack of transparency, and poor feedback.

  • Bullying and Harassment: An environment of overt or subtle bullying, harassment, or discrimination. This atmosphere can include verbal abuse, exclusion, or unfair treatment. Often brushed off, others defend the behavior because the employee or coworker “can't take a joke.”

  • Lack of Trust: Employees do not trust their coworkers or superiors. A culture of secrecy, blame-shifting, or a "cutthroat" mentality underminds trust. There is no actual team building or morale.

  • Micromanagement: Supervisors excessively monitor and control employees' work, leaving little room for autonomy and creativity.

  • Favoritism: Managers show preferential treatment to specific employees, leading to resentment and a sense of unfairness among the staff.

  • High Turnover: A consistently high turnover rate suggests employees leave the organization due to dissatisfaction or a toxic work environment.

  • Absenteeism and Burnout: Employees may frequently call in sick or take time off due to stress-related illnesses. Burnout, characterized by emotional exhaustion and reduced productivity, is common.

  • Negative Gossip and Rumors: There is a culture of gossip and spreading rumors about colleagues, creating a hostile and divisive atmosphere.

  • Privacy Violations: Management shares inappropriate or personal information with other non-management or disparages other managers to staff members.

  • Ineffective Leadership: Poor leadership or lack of direction. Leaders may be insensitive, unresponsive, or antagonistic to employee concerns or may set a negative example.

  • Resistance to Change: Employees are resistant to changes, afraid that changes will worsen existing issues.

  • Lack of Career Growth: Opportunities for advancement and professional development are limited, leaving employees feeling stagnant and unappreciated. Options for growth are rarely or never discussed.

  • Inequality and Unfair Treatment: Employees perceive a lack of fairness in promotions, salary, and recognition, creating an atmosphere of resentment and demotivation.

  • Low Morale: There is a general sense of unhappiness, poor mood, and cynicism among employees.

If you are experiencing the following signs, your workplace may be negatively impacting your life in concerning ways:

  • Feeling Anxious or Depressed: If you're constantly feeling anxious or depressed, especially during work hours or when thinking about work, this could indicate that your workplace is affecting your mental health.

  • Lack of Motivation: If you need more motivation towards your work or constantly procrastinate, this could be a sign of a problem.

  • Difficulty Concentrating: If concentration is difficult or you make more mistakes than usual, this could be a sign that your mental health is affected.

  • Changes in Sleep Patterns: If you're having trouble sleeping or are sleeping more than usual, this could be a sign of stress or anxiety related to your work.

  • Changes in Appetite or Weight: Changes in your eating habits or significant weight loss or gain can also be a sign.

  • Feeling Irritable or Angry: If you're feeling more irritable or angry than usual, especially towards your colleagues or work, this could be a sign of a problem.

  • Feeling Detached or Disconnected: If you're feeling detached from your work or colleagues or feel like you're not making a difference, this could be a sign that your mental health is being affected.

  • Physical Symptoms: Frequent headaches, stomachaches, or a general feeling of being unwell can also be signs of stress or anxiety related to work.

What You Can Do

Navigating a toxic workplace can be challenging and draining, so it's essential to have tools to help you protect your health. Here are some tips:

  • Recognize the Signs of Toxicity: Identify what makes your workplace toxic.

  • Self-Care: Put your health and peace first. Focus on self-care activities outside of work. Foster hobbies, exercise regularly, practice mindfulness, and prioritize restful sleep.

  • Set Boundaries: Set specific work hours and personal time. Refrain from taking work home whenever possible. Maintaining boundaries helps avoid burnout.

  • Seek Support: Talk to those you trust outside of work, such as friends, family, or a therapist about your experiences at work, which helps to maintain emotional support and valuable perspective.

  • Document Incidents: Keep a record of any toxic incidents or interactions, including dates, times, and people involved. This documentation may be useful if you decide to address the issues formally.

  • Stay Professional: Always be professional, even if others are not. Avoid negative behavior or gossip. Focus on your work and how you carry yourself.

  • Communication: Try to have open and honest conversations with your supervisor or HR department about your concerns. Use "I" statements to express how certain behaviors affect you.

  • Find Allies: Seek out like-minded colleagues who may also be struggling with the work environment. Having allies can provide emotional support and potential advocates for change.

  • Develop Coping Strategies: Have a set of coping tools to deal with stress. Tools could include deep breathing exercises, meditation, or visualization techniques to stay calm when feeling stressed or triggered.

  • Explore Other Opportunities: Start looking for other job opportunities or career paths if the toxicity becomes unbearable. You should not have to put your health at risk.

  • Legal Protections: Familiarize yourself with labor laws and your workplace's policies. If you face harassment or discrimination, know your rights and consider seeking legal advice.

  • Seek EAP or Counseling Services: Some companies offer Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) that provide counseling and support for employees dealing with workplace stress and mental health issues.

  • Plan an Exit Strategy: If the toxic environment persists and negatively impacts your well-being, start planning an exit strategy. Strategies include updating your resume, networking, and saving money for a transition period.

  • Consult a Mental Health Professional: If the toxic workplace is causing significant mental health issues, consider consulting a mental health professional for guidance and support.

Mental health is a big concern and priority for many, and it's okay to discuss it! Not only is it okay, it's how we will begin to end stigma and make positive progress. We deserve to live healthy, happy lives, and part of the way to do that is to create a community that can support us. We spend so much of our life at work and our work life directly affects our personal and family life. One of the primary foundations for change or care starts with initiatives and awareness in the workplace. Speaking up, sharing your experience, and starting the conversation is okay. Help lead the way forward – set an example and help end stigma. Every step forward count, and mental health advocacy helps save lives.

Tools and Resources for Individuals and Companies


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