The Importance of Creating a Mentally Healthy Workplace

Few environments test an individual’s mental health quite like the workplace. For some it can be immensely rewarding, a place of achievement and praise, boosting their confidence and raising their self-esteem. For others, however, the office is a place of egotism and bullying. Indeed, the work environment can have a devastating impact on mental health. In the U.K. alone, nearly half a million cases of work-related stress are recorded each year. Since for most people the workplace is the centre of their lives, finding the right one is crucial.

A New Organisation

For most people, the workplace is the third organisation they will encounter after the family and school (or college). And the change can be quite a shock, especially if they were praised a great deal in the first and successful and popular in the second.

First of all, the workplace is a much less forgiving environment. Of course, this is not always the case. Many young people who are neglected at home, or bullied at school, blossom when they begin work; but in general people find they are no longer praised or supported in quite the same way. The risks are also greater. A sulky, stroppy teenager who yells at his parents and breaks the school rules can expect nothing worse than an occasional grounding or suspension. Behave this way at work, however, and you may be sacked, possibly losing your home and even your marriage in the process.

But the rewards are also greater. You cannot be promoted to head of the family, or take over as Principal of the School, but you can replace your boss. A regular wage can also be tremendously rewarding. At last you feel like a self-reliant, independent adult. If you can rise to the new challenges, and navigate your way through the new environment, the rewards are immense.

Difficulty and Refusal to Compromise

When they begin work, people usually encounter at least some, if not all, of the following difficulties:

1) Being part of a team. Job adverts often ask for people who “work well in a team.” But this can be harder than you expect. Human beings derive their self-esteem from how they feel they compare to others. Beneath the surface, the members of a team usually seethe with jealousy, envy, and resentment. You may believe that you can work through this by being reasonable, but you are dealing with emotion, not reason.

2) Taking orders. Some people cannot bear being told what to do. And this is especially true when they feel no respect for the person giving the orders. Being ordered around by an odious, arrogant, incompetent superior is no fun. Sometimes, people who are themselves bullied take out their frustration on those below them. Others have no natural authority and sense that their colleagues know this. When they are given power, they often seek to hide this by loud, obnoxious bullying.

3) Giving orders. Just as it can be hard to take orders, it can be hard to give them. Within any group there will always be someone who resents your authority, no matter how gracious or pleasant you try to be. Indeed, the harder you try to win some people over, the more they will dislike you. You may also have to lead someone better educated, qualified, or experienced than yourself.

Naturally, such experiences cause stress. You may find yourself sleeping poorly or even suffering from bouts of depression. The most important thing is to get your priorities clear. Your partner, children, and family should be the centre of your life. Never compromise. If you find that you are taking out work-related stress on your loved ones, you may have to choose between the two. Many people take their family for granted, ultimately sacrificing it for an ungrateful boss or a promotion that never comes.

Self-Sabotage

People who lack self-esteem often ruin their career through self-sabotage. The most obvious example is the individual who refuses promotion because they are convinced they will fail. But self-sabotage can be more subtle. People often grow used to failure and unhappiness. It can even make them feel secure. If they were unloved as children, or bullied at school, they may find the praise and encouragement they receive at work unnerving. Sometimes, people react by doing a poor job. When their boss then seems disappointed, or they find themselves demoted, it comes as a relief.

More generally, people can feed their poor mental health by choosing an unsuitable environment. An individual with anger issues, for example, may gravitate towards a dysfunctional sales office presided over by a yelling, screaming tyrant. The reason is simple: by choosing such a place he doesn’t have to confront his own failings. Instead, he can blame his anger on his colleagues. “Of course I lose my temper” he will say, “what do you expect when people are shouting at me?”. If he were to work for a gentle, kind boss, surrounded by relaxed, cheerful colleagues, he would have to admit that he was the one with the problem.

Emotional Challenge

Sometimes it can be healthy to seek out a workplace that challenges you to confront these failings. Of course, no one benefits from working in an environment filled with backstabbing hypocrites and passive-aggressive bullies. But it can be useful to embrace emotional challenges. These will help you grow.

A hypothetical example may bring this to life. Imagine a boy named Steven who grew up as the only child of cold, emotionally distant parents. As a result, he has always found relationships difficult. His wife finds him detached and formal and is growing exasperated by the lack of passion and warmth. His children also find him remote and unapproachable. For years he has worked in a series of I.T. jobs. Friends often joke that he gets on better with computers than people. In other words, Steven has found a job that suits him; it is precise, unemotional, and routine. Eventually, his wife becomes fed up and demands they see a counsellor. The counsellor asks him what he does and advises him to do something that requires more social and, above all, emotional investment. She recommends he volunteers at a children’s hospital. He agrees. Soon, he finds himself deeply involved in the rhythms of hospital life, in the moments of joy and sadness, relief and despair. At first he resists, but gradually the experience thaws him and he reconnects with long-buried emotions. Thus a change in the work environment has led to psychological growth.

Few things reveal someone’s mental health or emotional maturity quite like the workplace; and few things test them more. Many enlightened and progressive companies even employ full-time therapists. Given how demanding and stressful the modern workplace can be, this should be considered a vital necessity rather than an expensive luxury!



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Mark Goddard, Ph.D.

Mark Goddard, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and a consultant specializing in the social-personality psychology. His publications include magazine chapters, articles and self-improvement books on CBT for anxiety, stress and depression. In his spare time, he enjoys reading about political and social history.

*The views expressed by Mr. Goddard in this column are his own, are not made in any official capacity, and do not represent the opinions of his employers.

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