Common Mental Health Challenges in the Workplace | EAPA-SA

The development of mental health problems rises from a complex relationship between biological, psychological and social/environmental factors. One contributing social context is the workplace. “There is evidence that the poor organisation and management of work can play a significant role in the development of mental health problems; and the impact of mental health problems in the workplace can have serious consequences not only for the individual employee, but also for the productivity of the organisation.”

“There is evidence that the poor organisation and management of work can play a significant role in the development of mental health problems”

“Across research findings, psychosocial issues (such as lack of job control, low decision latitude, low skill discretion, job strain, and effort-reward imbalance) have been found to be associated with the risk of depression, poor health functioning, anxiety, distress, fatigue, job dissatisfaction, burnout and sickness absence.”



Early warning signs of mental health problems

Due to the stigma of being diagnosed with a mental health problem, employees may not feel at ease in seeking help from within the workplace, fearing they will be judged or jeopardise their job security. This is a significant reason mental health concerns may go undiagnosed and untreated. 

It can be very easy to miss early warning signs of mental illness in an employee – especially in light of continued social distancing and more employees working from home. There are some common signs to look out for:

  • Long-lasting sadness or irritability
  • Extremely high and low moods
  • Excessive fear, worry, or anxiety
  • Social withdrawal
  • Dramatic changes in eating or sleeping habits


Due to the stigma of being diagnosed with a mental health problem, employees may not feel at ease in seeking help from within the workplace

These early warning signs can manifest themselves in various ways: 


  • Panic attacks:  Someone who is suffering a panic attack may begin to shake, sweat or struggle to breathe. They may experience a racing heartbeat or feel a pain in their chest that can mimic having a heart attack. 



  • Distractedness: Paired with any other signs, distractedness can signal that there is a mental health problem occurring.
  • Lapses in memory: This can be one of the more noticeable psychological signs. Things that can cause memory lapses, include overwhelming stress or experiencing trauma.
  • Tearfulness or heightened emotion: Noticing that a team member is tearful can signal problems in their personal life, or perhaps they may suffer from stress or ill mental health.



  • Increased anger or aggression: This can be a tell-tale sign of anxiety or other disorders, especially if the employee usually has a calm and collected personality.
  • Unusual risk-taking: If an employee is taking risks or making impulsive decisions that seem out of character, this can be an implication of serious disorders such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. 
  • Increased absences: A notable increase in absenteeism in an employee may initially lead you to disciplinary action. However, you may want to first consider speaking to them to ensure they’re not facing personal issues. 

These negative behaviours can be misconstrued as a poor work ethic or decorum. If you notice any of these signs in your staff members, it may be worth speaking to them and offering help if needed before the employee is wrongfully reprimanded.


Work-related mental health risk factors

Most work-related risk factors are interrelated, incorporating type of work, the organisational and managerial environment, the skills and competencies of employees, and the support available for employees to facilitate carrying out their work.  Risks to mental health include: 

  • Work environment factors
    • poor communication and management practices;
    • limited participation in decision-making or low control over one’s area of work;
    • low levels of support for employees;
    • inflexible working hours;
    • unclear tasks or organisational objectives;
    • inadequate health and safety policies. 
  • Job content:  This includes challenges such as unsuitable tasks for the employee’s competencies or a heavy and unrelenting workload. Risk may be increased in situations where there is a lack of team cohesion or social support.
  • Personal risk:  Some jobs may carry a higher personal risk than others (e.g. first responders). This can impact negatively on mental health or lead to harmful use of alcohol or psychoactive drugs. 
  • Bullying and harassment: These are commonly reported causes of work-related stress by workers and can present a risk to the mental health of workers, being associated with both psychological and physical problems. 

The mental health consequences of such risk factors can have a material cost for employers in terms of reduced productivity and increased staff turnover.



Good mental health and good management go hand in hand, and there is strong evidence that workplaces with high levels of mental wellbeing are more productive. Here are three ways leaders can consciously create a workplace conducive to supporting employees with mental health issues.


Value mental health as a core asset of your organisation

  • Commit to developing an approach to mental health within the organisation that protects and improves mental health for everyone, whilst supporting those employees who experience distress. 
  • Conduct regular staff surveys and audits to build data about staff mental health, then use findings to plan, inform and deliver effective workplace policies. 


Support the development of compassionate and effective line management relationships

  • Provide opportunities for managers to attend relevant training to support staff living with mental health problems. 
  • Provide proactive support for leaders who are line-managing people with mental health problems, 
  • Recognise that line managers who have personal experience of mental health problems are a unique asset to the organisation.


Address discrimination

  • Ensure that discrimination on the grounds of mental health status is as unacceptable as discrimination related to other protected characteristics such as race, gender or sexual orientation.
  • Encourage staff to report any discrimination or harassment they face and report discrimination they witness.


When good management results in a workplace culture where employees feel free to be themselves, it is easier for them to speak about their mental health concerns without fear. Even so, the decision to disclose distress at work should not be taken lightly. It is vital that workplaces become environments where people feel safe to look for support and to reach out for help when they need it. 


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