Stress is not a mental health problem itself. The stress response is a survival instinct to keep us safe. It was vital when looking to survive a lion chase on the savannah.
What is mental health?
It’s easy to define mental health as just the absence of mental illness. Most experts agree there is more to being mentally healthy. It has been defined as ‘a state of successful performance of mental function, resulting in productive activities, fulfilling relationships with people, and the ability to adapt to change and to cope with adversity.’ Mentally healthy adults report the fewest health-related limitations of their day-to-day activities. They have the fewest missed days of work and the healthiest social functioning.
How does stress affect us?
Humans have survived over thousands of years because if we sensed danger or a threat, the part of the brain controlling emotions such as fear and anxiety switches on. At this time the brain shuts down unnecessary functions allowing the release of hormones giving the body’s muscles a power surge to respond by either flight or fight. Today our brains cannot distinguish between the chance of being lunch and an altercation with someone.
Researchers have discovered that if stress becomes a way of life – rushing from pillar to post – the front part of our brain begins to reduce in size. This section not only regulates hormones, blood pressure and heartbeat but enables us to learn, plan, concentrate and make judgements.
If stress becomes overwhelming it can lead to anxiety, depression and, not only other mental health problems but also physical problems. These include heart disease, insomnia, muscle pain, damage to the immune system and a link to cancer.
Mental Health in the workplace
The Government’s Department of Health estimates that possibly one in four of us will experience mental ill health at some point in our lives. It is therefore important that employers and their staff take steps to promote positive mental health and support those experiencing the opposite.
Promoting positive mental health in your workplace will, therefore, be beneficial. Happy staff are more likely to perform their best, have good attendance levels and engage in their work.
It can take time to change an organisation’s workplace culture. An employer should, therefore, publicise its commitment to promoting positive mental health across the organisation. Doing this can encourage staff to talk to their manager and colleagues about how they are feeling.
An employer needs to develop an action plan for how it will promote positive mental health. This should include:
- Put support processes in place for staff experiencing mental ill health;
- Train managers in mental health and have named champions in the workplace;
- Create a mental health policy and review existing policies;
- Involve the staff
Signs of mental health issues
- Frequent headaches or stomach upsets
- Suffering regular minor illnesses
- Difficulty sleeping or constant tiredness
- Generally run down
- Lack of care over appearance
- Sudden change in weight
Emotional and behavioural
- Irritability, aggression or tearfulness
- Not participating in conversations or social activities
- Increased arguments or conflict with others
- Erratic or socially unacceptable behaviour
- Loss of humour
- Indecision and an inability to concentrate
- Increased consumption of caffeine, alcohol, cigarettes and/or sedatives
- Being louder or more exuberant than usual
- Loss of confidence
- Forgetting things
These are the signs to look out for indicating that an employee may need support:
- Increased errors, missing deadlines or forgetting tasks
- Taking on too much work
- Working too many hours
- A normally punctual employee arriving late
- Increased sickness absence