How Work Culture and Mental Health Are Connected

6 Feb ‘23
3 min
Work performance
Editorial Board OpenUp
Gecontroleerd door Psychologist Paul Hessels
work culture and mental wellbeing
Throughout their lifetime, the average person spends more than 80,000 hours at work. That’s a big chunk of our lives! But how do we ensure that those hours are spent within a work culture that supports and motivates us and puts our well-being first? 


The attitudes, behaviours and atmosphere at work can have a significant impact on people’s mental well-being. Equally, poor mental well-being can harm the success and productivity of a company or organisation. 


This article will discuss how work culture and employee mental well-being are connected and provide guidelines on how to create a culture that promotes and prioritises well-being. 


How work and well-being are connected


Well-being is a multidimensional concept. It describes a person’s state of physical and mental health. It also includes everything that makes life feel meaningful and the person feel valued. Thus, because work is such an integral part of most people’s lives, it’s an important element of well-being.


But what comes first? Well-being in life or well-being at work? Research has found that job satisfaction, purpose, and social connections at work influence out-of-work happiness. But it works the other way, too. Happiness in life, having a sense of meaning, and mental health influence job well-being. 


That means it’s a reciprocal relationship: our well-being in life influences our well-being at work and vice versa. Therefore, not only it’s important to look after employee well-being while they’re working but also to have support available to help people with their mental health outside of work. 


When people are happier in life, they’re better at coping with stress and difficulties. The positive emotions they experience influence their perception of their environment and situations and interactions – the so-called “rose-tinted glasses” effect.  


Equally, being happy in your job positively affects other areas of your life. When working conditions are good, work can actually protect people’s mental well-being as it provides:


  • Income and financial stability 
  • Sense of purpose and achievement
  • Opportunities to connect with other people and a community
  • Structure and routine


On the other hand, when people have poor mental health (e.g., depression or anxiety) this negatively influences their satisfaction and engagement at work – they’re less motivated, enjoy work less, and produce lower-quality results.


What are the conditions that contribute to workplace well-being? 


According to Professor of Psychology Peter Warr, there are 12 “vitamins” that lead to higher workplace well-being: 


  • Having control (or autonomy) over activities 
  • Being able to use skills 
  • Having goals and feeling able to achieve them 
  • Variety
  • Clarity about the work 
  • Relationships with others 
  • Income
  • Physical security 
  • Feeling part of a community 
  • Supportive management 
  • Opportunities 
  • Equality and inclusivity


What are mental health risks at work?


Workplace conditions can significantly influence people’s well-being, and there are several risks that can contribute to employees experiencing poor well-being. For example, when employees face discrimination, bullying, exclusion, harassment or violence. The risks, however, can also be more subtle and include being unclear about the job role, lacking control over workload and activities, feeling overwhelmed and unsupported, and missing career development opportunities.


Burnout is another growing problem, with almost 50% of the UK workforce reporting they are close to burning out, which in turn can lead to an increased rate of sick days and absenteeism and reduce productivity. The causes of burnout include excessive workload, lack of a sense of control and achievement, discrimination, and lack of support. 


Finally, the way work affects a person also depends on their personality and general stress levels outside of work, which should be taken into account when creating well-being policies. 


Therefore, creating a workplace that protects and promotes well-being requires balance and personalisation. People want to feel heard and understood as an individual; they want to feel challenged and valuable but in control rather than overwhelmed. In the next section, we’ll go into more detail about how to create a healthy work culture.

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What can organisations do to create a culture that fosters mental well-being?


When a company believes the mental health of its employees is essential, that’s a good start to creating a positive work culture. Employees should feel heard and able to communicate openly about their mental health, without worrying that they will be judged or criticised. 


The key is to ensure that the behaviour and responses of an organisation live up to the promise that mental health is a priority – in other words, it shouldn’t be tokenistic but genuine and action-orientated. Below we share advice on how to ensure your work culture fosters mental well-being: 


1. Reducing Stigma 


Although there have been many advances in breaking the stigma around mental health, and more organisations are striving to make mental health a priority, there’s still a long way to go. 


Reducing stigma means educating the workforce on mental health, enabling open conversations, supporting those that struggle, and eliminating discrimination. That might mean making mental health training mandatory, providing counselling and other employee support structures, as well as implementing relevant policies.


2. Policy 


Policies around equality and diversity and mental health should be up-to-date with current guidelines. The responsible team should consistently apply policies and procedures and ensure they’re staying current with laws and regulations. All employees should be aware of the policies and attend training if necessary. 


This will help everyone to know what is expected of them and what they can expect from the employer. A clear pathway should be available for employees to access mental health support should they need it. 


3. Management and Leadership 


The attitudes and behaviours of the company’s leadership set an example for the rest of the company. Therefore, management should champion the well-being approach and the support structure and provision.


“It is also important to add some emphasis on the ‘modelling’ function”, says psychologist Paul Hessels. “If the organisation emphasises how it’s not normal to keep working over-time (what is said to be the norm), but the manager sends emails at 20.00 in the evening (what people see), your employees will probably follow the latter example and feel pressured to respond/work in the evening”.


It’s therefore essential that managers receive training in how to recognise mental distress and burnout, and how to manage it effectively. Reasonable adjustments should be made to those who are struggling with their mental health and people returning from sick leave should be supported adequately.


4. Communication


A work culture that encourages open communication and active listening, and provides psychological safety promotes a mentally healthy workforce. 


Psychological safety means feeling safe to speak up about ideas, questions, mistakes, and mental health concerns, as well as safeguarding confidentiality. Staff shouldn’t be scared or embarrassed to share when they’re feeling overwhelmed, stressed or burnt out.


“Make a check-in or catch-up only about the topic of how someone is doing” suggests Paul. “It’s very easy to use the 30-60 minutes during the check-in to talk about work-related things, about what someone is doing. Especially when there is so much to do still. But try to really emphasise that this moment is ONLY about how the person is doing. This will give space to talk about well-being. And also, it feels much better when it’s more than just “Are you okay? Cool, now let’s look at your current projects’”.


5. Person-centered approach


Everyone is different and therefore employees should be treated as such. Individual meetings and catch-ups or check-ins allow staff to voice their concerns and enable dynamic solutions to be found. This includes supervision.  Managers and employees should prioritise and make use of supervision and follow up on any concerns raised. 


6. Promote rest


Some people believe that rest is a waste of time. But a growing amount of research is showing exactly the opposite: taking breaks and holiday reduces stress, burnout, and sick days and improves productivity and the quality of work. 


An employer who takes well-being seriously and wants their staff to work to their best ability ensures that rest is encouraged. That could include providing a functional and relaxing restroom, expecting staff to take their annual leave and limit their overtime, having fitness facilities and/ or a quiet room. 


Final Thoughts and Resources


A company’s culture has the power to influence whether people feel satisfied at work. This happens when relationships are genuine and supportive; when people have a sense of value, responsibility, and autonomy; when open communication and strong leadership are fostered. It’s also imperative that any stigma is actively tackled and a clear and suitable support structure is in place. 


Ensuring that well-being is a priority and is promoted equally throughout the organisation isn’t always straightforward. That’s why help is available! 


At OpenUp, we offer support for companies to ensure you can cultivate a culture of care, measure well-being effectively and increase productivity. 🤔 Click here to find out more.  

Other helpful resources for UK employers
  • The UK mental health charity Mind has developed a resource website with advice on how to manage mental health in the workplace
  • A report commissioned by the UK government and produced by the Royal College of Psychiatrists on mental health and work
  • Here are the UK government’s resources for equality and diversity
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