Mental Health in the Workplace


An employee with anxiety disorder can fall under the umbrella of clinical therapy, coaching, occupational therapy, or counselling. Lisa Alfrey, Counselling Psychologist, considers how different strands of psychology work together to support real people in real situations, as they prepare for a return to work after time off due to a mental health issue.

Summary points

  • Mental illness can make work impossible and contribute to work-related anxiety.
  • Where employees have temporarily left the workplace due to mental health issues, a return to work can feel overwhelming.
  •  Support patients by helping them recognise their boundaries, practice saying no, and identify relaxation methods.
  •  Understanding how anxiety manifests can help patients feel more in control and more self-assured about returning to work.

Experiencing poor mental health in the workplace

We spend a huge chunk of our day in the workplace, and it is no surprise that it can affect, and be effected by, our mental health. As a London-based practitioner, I have seen my fair share of patients who find work difficult in the face of mental health issues, such as work-related stress, anxiety or depression. They may describe being tearful, feeling overwhelmed, helpless and confused. Often what unites these patients is a strong experience of anxiety, which presents itself in such different ways that it is not recognised as anxiety by the people experiencing the symptoms. I have had patients who have gone to hospital, unsure and scared about the emotions and indeed physical sensations of anxiety, including shallow breathing, heart palpations or upset stomachs. Often, they fear something may be wrong with their hearts, but medical tests show no physical abnormalities.

I illustrate this in such detail to emphasise the experience of someone going through a mental health issue in a public arena, such as their place of work. Whether you are an occupational, clinical or counselling psychologist, you are likely to meet patients who are unable to attend work full-time due to poor mental health. This may show itself in different ways, for example, employees may be unable to attend work full-time or at all, or it can lead to presenteeism, where people do go to work but struggle to complete work duties such as meetings or presentations. Presenteeism is defined by the CIPD as people who come into work when they are ill, where they are physically at work but are unable to work productively. As of May 2018, the number of cases of presenteeism has tripled since 2010. In their report, Health and well-being at work, the CIPD concluded that the rise in presenteeism in the workplace may be associated with the rise of mental health conditions such as work-related stress, anxiety and depression.

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