Why good work is essential for good mental health

By Gabrielle Pendlebury, below, Clinical Director, Psychiatric Services, Onebright

Work and mental health are deeply intertwined. A poor experience at work can both exacerbate a pre-existing issue with someone’s mental health and contribute to the emergence of a mental health condition. Similarly, research shows that “good” work also has a significant positive impact on mental health, as The Royal College of Psychiatrists recently set out in a position statement. These findings are crucially important for employers as well as mental health professionals.

What is “good” work?

Evidence shows a strong correlation between “good work” and good mental health. Not every job will help someone’s mental health, but good ones will. What do we mean by “good work”? It’s not just a high salary but instead, it depends on various different characteristics.

These characteristics include:

  • Job security
  • Fair pay reflective of the role
  • A good work/life balance
  • An appropriate balance of power between workers and employer
  • A safe and healthy environment
  • Promotion of productivity
  • Prevention of isolation
  • Appropriate autonomy and control
  • Opportunity for progression

Unfortunately, not all jobs look like this, and research from Public Health England shows people with mental health conditions are more likely to work in precarious roles with part-time or temporary hours, high turnover, and low pay.

The importance of keeping people in work

Allowing people to slip out of employment can be the beginning of a spiral into isolation and more serious mental health conditions. Since work is such an important factor in mental health, keeping people linked to work is a major focus for the mental health profession. The public health system puts significant resources into this goal, with NHS England investing £10 million in 2018 to support up to 20,000 people with mental health issues to keep or gain employment.

The new position statement also recommends that psychiatrists should directly advocate with employers on behalf of their patients where appropriate, with the aim of keeping them in work and reducing stigma.

What employers can do 

Employers shouldn’t wait for a psychiatrist to contact them advocating for a patient. The position statement recommends employers take a range of actions to support mental wellbeing at work.

  1. Help managers to spot people struggling

The first is ensuring that people who supervise or manage people are able to identify potential mental health issues in their staff and talk to them about such difficulties in an appropriate way. These conversations will not always be easy but should not be shied away from. They should focus on what can be done to support the mental wellbeing of the employee – not on diagnosing an “illness”.

2. Develop good policies

Policies can be developed to support employees struggling with mental conditions to remain in work – or return to it. No policy will be perfect, and people struggling with mental health can often react in different ways. But having some guidelines to refer to can still be helpful.

3. Bring in outside help

Consider bringing in occupational mental healthcare services. While managers should be confident enough to talk to their staff about their issues, they are not professionals. This can include everything from obtaining good training for managers from professionals to providing talk therapy directly to employees.

Ultimately, putting in place this support for employees will help the workplace as much as the individual employees. Workers who are struggling with their mental health can cause disruption to others – and if they end up leaving employment, they can take huge troves of experience and knowledge with them.