You see it sometimes with coworkers—sluggish, lackluster job performance, low motivation, and absenteeism. You may even write them off, blaming nefarious motivations for their lousy job performance when, often, the real culprit is work-related mental health issues.
Occupational depression (the impact your work environment has on your mood and how it affects how you think, feel, and act) costs employers an estimated $1 trillion annually in lost productivity and is often passed off as job stress or workplace burnout. Worse, entire offices are affected if malaise settles over everyone due, say, to an acquisition or other company change that leaves dissatisfaction in its wake.
“Occupational depression is bolstered by the workplace, due to unfavorable conditions that destroy mental health—toxic cultures, bad bosses, and poor working conditions,” says Chad Hill, CMO at Hill & Ponton, a Florida law firm specializing in disability cases.
In fact, depression is the single leading cause of work-related disability for those under 50.
Telltale occupational depression signs include a withdrawal from the team, indifference to colleagues, missed deadlines, mistakes and accidents, absentminded behavior, procrastination, and a lack of self-confidence.
Depressed employees may also be anxious, angry, irritable, and tired at work. Imagine an office filled with people operating under these conditions and you can understand how occupational depression could become a workplace crisis.
Raise awareness in the office
Companies that promote a mentally healthy working environment, especially those that normalize mental health discussions, have a leg up when it comes to occupational depression, but it’s not just up to “management” to fix.
The National Council for Behavioral Health offers a Mental Health First Aid at Work training which, for a fee, helps companies teach employees how to recognize mental illness at work and help an employee at risk.
With training, employees can spot coworkers in trouble and step in with the right words and referrals to company assistance and resources.
Create a mentally healthy workplace
While stigma is still an issue in the office, a poll from the American Psychiatric Association found half of American workers are now comfortable talking about mental health at work.
Joseph Tropper, a licensed clinical professional counselor with Core Wellness, recommends employees practice tenets of the Therapeutic Lifestyle Change (TLC) Program, originally established to help when medication didn’t work, which includes many social and physical changes employees can incorporate.
Here are 9 steps every employee can foster to improve mental health in their workplace:
Eat a brain-healthy diet
Studies suggest depression improves when met with a healthy diet that includes fruits, vegetables, omega-3s, complex carbs, and healthy fats. Even better if you can grab choices such as almonds, natural juice, and peanut butter whole-grain crackers from the break room or a work vending machine.
Keep your office active
Workplaces that focus on activity and exercise maintain better mental health overall. Hold walking meetings, go for lunchtime workouts, try standing desks—anything that encourages physical activity.
Give yourself a time limit to stew about a workplace transgression, then move on. “Negative thoughts actually propel further sadness and negativity and never solve the issue,” says Tropper.
Natural light is 100 times brighter (10,000 lux) than indoor light (100 lux), Tropper says. Nix the closed window blinds. Natural light combats depression and increases office energy.
Connect with coworkers
Though depression can make colleagues self-isolate and withdraw, don’t let them. Mental Health America, a community-based nonprofit dedicated to improving American’s mental health, found 71% of survey participants want to reach out to their social circle for support. Suss out office loners and bring them into the fold. Ask someone to eat lunch with you, take a walk, or hang out after work.
Bring in plants
A Japanese study finds greenery and fresh oxygen from plants help our mood and brain function optimally at work. People who have a small plant on their desk have lower stress, anxiety, and depression than those who don’t. Brighten someone’s desk with a plant.
Experience the outdoors
Eat lunch outside, take outdoor breaks, or volunteer to pick up lunch for the team, or run a work errand, because research suggests spending time outside lifts mood disorders.
Push for workplace wellness benefits
In-office massage, acupuncture, yoga, and in-house counseling sessions or access to mental health apps improve worker’s mental health and quality of work-life. Push to gain these types of worker perks to alleviate occupational depression’s effects on your office.
Ask for a survey
Big office changes or low office morale can cue rampant workplace depression. Ask HR to conduct an anonymous survey to gauge occupational depression levels and implement resources such as mental health training and seminars, a mental health newsletter, or a mental health in-house resource library.
It’s easy to just shrug off a coworker’s sudden poor performance or ignore a pervasive discontented feeling in the office, but if the workplace continues to be detrimental to employee mental health, the cycle will only continue, Hill points out.
A mentally healthy workplace helps eliminate occupational depression and empowers employees to seek help. It’s up to everyone to see to it.