Coronavirus has made returning to the office a period of great anxiety. But returning to work after a pandemic is only part of the disparities between a healthy work-life and good mental health. Data is increasingly providing evidence that our psychological resilience is on the decline: according to one survey, only 13 per cent of people in the UK reported that they had good mental health.

This is a worrying statistic when put into perspective. There are currently 67,924,245 people in the UK*. To say that only 13 per cent of the UK would consider themselves to maintain a good level of mental health, indicates that approximately 59,094,093 people acknowledge themselves with having a below satisfactory level of mental health.

How does this extend to the workplace? Well, looking at a hypothetical company of 50 employees, if only 13 per cent are happy in their current mental health, there are around 43 employees who are struggling with less-than-great mental health. It’s easy to summarise if you consider a company that may have 100 employees — following the statistic, only 13 employees would enjoy their current mental wellbeing, as opposed to 83 employees that may be battling with inadequate mental health.

Therefore, it is clear that businesses need to take further steps to reinforce and promote good mental health procedures in the UK. But how can employers and employees go about doing this? The steps to improving these practices come with understanding the problem before moving too hastily to a solution.

What’s the difference between mental illness and mental health?

It is a mistake to define mental illness and mental health within the same bracket — they are very distinct and different ideas. However, they both need to be addressed with respect and understanding, especially at work. Neither can be easily identified, as a person who suffers from mental illness or poor mental health may be able to produce the same level of work as a colleague that benefits from good mental health.

However, the differences are distinct and must be appreciated to direct good management and procedures. During their royal tour South Africa, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex discussed ending the stigma surrounding mental health issues. Prince Harry said:

“I think most of the stigma is around mental illness, we need to separate the two… mental health, which is every single one of us, and mental illness, which could be every single one of us.”

In order to understand mental health, one may understand it through the perspective of physical health. It is just as important and dealt with by everyone on a daily basis. In the same way that a person can be physically healthy, another person may suffer from physical illnesses that affect their daily lives. A further circumstance or incident can equally influence the physical health of a person— for instance, a person is physically well may walk into a smoke-filled room. They will cough, and their physical health will deteriorate consequently. However, if that person was physically unwell, the consequences of this incident may increase the damage and cause a further decline in physical health and wellness. The result of the incident is increasingly worse for the person with previous conditions.

The damaging effects of mental health are similar to that of physical health. If a person who is enjoying good mental health experiences a bad day at work, their mental wellbeing will decrease. After all, it’s an understandable consequence of a rough day at work. But a person who suffers with an already declining sense of mental health before a negative influence may be more susceptible to this event. If this person was to experience the same rough working day, the repercussions of the event will damage their mental health in a similar way, but with a larger influence. Of course, this is not a universal indicator of how mental health works. Indeed, a person with mental health issues can function well in the workplace. But, it is important to understand that just because someone does not suffer from a mental illness, they are not prohibited from suffering from poor mental health and being unable to cope.

How to support mental health and mental illness at work

The solution may sound simple, but a happy work environment can create the most productive work environment. Employers can support both employees suffering from mental illness and mental health by taking small but important steps that will help the entire workforce. These procedures can help businesses to improve the conditions of working life.

Encourage an open environment

A business can benefit from creating an open environment where people can talk about their mental health and educate each other on how individuals may suffer from their mental health or illness. The stigma around mental health gives the preconception of weakness or an inability to complete work to a high standard — this is wrong and damaging. This stigma and idea of exclusion can create issues for those who may not be open about their mental health issues and how they suffer with their mental health. You are responsible for the wellbeing of your colleagues as well as yourself.

Holding conferences on how mental health affects the workplace is a significant suggestion. The information is out there, with various charities willing and eager to discuss the importance of good mental health and disprove any misconceptions employees may have about the topic.

The morale of your staff team is a vital component. Awareness weeks only come once a year, despite it being an everyday issue. Continually having workshops to consider and creating a safe space to discuss mental health can contribute to a positive working environment. Hosting a coffee morning — offering an array of cakes, hot beverages, or a slush machine for those summer working days — is a small but essential step! A supportive and enjoyable network of people at your workplace is as important as the work you do. This will in turn only help with the mental health of employees, as people become more ready to approach people with their issues.

A flexible workplace

To ease the pressure on mental health, a flexible workplace is essential. Businesses should strive to achieve a relaxed workplace. This does not limit the value of the work itself — after all, we expect a little stress. But the office environment should work to ameliorate these conditions. An uncomfortable ask can be made easier if you’re working in comfort.

The layout of an office is important too. Businesses have adapted to the recent trend of open-plan office spaces, recognising the benefits. It avoids an isolated working style, promotes a community ethic, and dismantles the hierarchal and emotionally-removed cubicle-style work. Creativity flows in an open-plan office space — suggestions and feedback flow between desks, and the work produced is improved.

However, this is not a straightforward fix. Of course, a person with anxiety or autism may not interact well with an open-plan office. Crowded spaces can create an uncomfortable environment, the idea of being in a crowd can be awkward for some, and autism and anxiety can contribute to this feeling. Too much noise — music and chatter — may prove too much for someone with auditory sensory issues. A person with anxiety may find it difficult to work in an open-plan office on a bad day. The ability to work away from this environment must be an option. A quiet room for work that requires 100% of your concentration is essential. Even then, the ability to work from home has proved to be an effective workplace for many people during lockdown. That option must never be taken away.

We can never be certain when one of our colleagues or employees is suffering with mental health issues or mental illness. Their working standard is good, but they may struggle to cope! This stresses the importance of working to improve the conditions of office life by creating a welcoming and open environment where everyone is comfortable. This is not only beneficial to employees but also to business and employers.