Mental health and work ability

By fostering successful interaction, good leadership, competence development, genuine caring and responsibility at your workplace, you also promote mental health. Ilmarinen can provide you with information and assist you in supporting and promoting mental health at your workplace.

What is mental health?

Good mental health means a state of well-being in which an individual is able to do his or her best. When an employee’s mental health is good, he or she realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to participate in the activities of the work community.

However, mental health goes beyond the well-being of the mind or the absence of problems. Many psychological symptoms, are a normal part of life, if they come and go. Grief and disappointment, fear, anxiety or temporary sleep problems are unpleasant feelings, thoughts and symptoms that we all experience at some point in our lives. Good mental health involves the ability to deal with these feelings, thoughts and symptoms and to cope with them.

Half of Finnish adults encounter mental disorders at some point in their lives. They either fall ill themselves or watch their loved one fall ill. We all experience some kind of temporary mental health issues along the way. That is why it is also likely that someone at your workplace will suffer from psychological symptoms or mental disorders at some point. Encountering and dealing with various mental health issues by discussing them and listening to your employees is part of everyday life at the workplace and in supervisory work.

Mental health is the ability to love and work.(Sigmund Freud)​

Mental health issues: psychological symptoms and mental disorders

We all experience symptoms related to mental health at some point in our lives. These psychological symptoms nclude unpleasant emotions and thoughts, such as feeling down, anxiety and grief, concerns, fears and disappointments or trouble sleeping. They are part of life, and if they are temporary, they are often the appropriate reaction to a challenging or difficult situation. Your resources, coping mechanisms and support networks can help you deal with them and get through them.

Mental disorders, such as depression, are conditions diagnosed by a doctor. A diagnosis can be established when the symptoms are long-term and considerably affect the individual’s functional ability and interpersonal relationships and cause suffering. It takes more than a decision or willpower to recover from mental disorders; support and appropriate treatment are required.

Temporary symptoms or mental disorders?

By promoting and supporting mental health at your workplace, you can reduce the risk of your employees developing mental disorders. Mental disorders are the most common reason for retiring on a disability pension and receiving a sickness allowance.

Mental disorders include a broad spectrum of different conditions, such as depression, anxiety disorders, psychosis and bipolar disorder. Among these, depression is the key factor behind both increasing absences due to illness and disability pensions. The onset of mental disorders is affected by a number of background factors, such as genetic predisposition, developmental risk factors and negative life events that act as triggers. 

On the other hand, a number of factors that protect mental health have also been identified, such as good interpersonal relationships, social support, sufficient sleep, a healthy diet and avoiding intoxicants. You can have an impact on some of these at the workplace. According to the Current Care Guidelines, reducing work stress can prevent the development of depression in individuals that present risk factors for depression.

Although it is not always possible to influence the background risk factors of mental condition, your workplace has a significant role in supporting, promoting and protecting the mental health of your employees. 

For promoting mental health, it is important that you:

  • understand which factors at the workplace affect mental health
  • understand that it is a part of normal life to sometimes feel sad and experience psychological symptoms. The support offered at the workplace can promote coping with different stressors.
  • understand that mental disorders diagnosed by a doctor are medical conitions that require treatment but in which the support offered at the workplace plays a decisive role in terms of work ability
  • know how to reach out for professional help, such as the occupational health care service, when required

By promoting mental health you support work ability

Working life changes and evolves constantly. The changes concern both the contents and ways of working and how work is organised. These changes affect not only the employees’ well-being but also your organisation’s productivity and competitiveness and thus the whole of society. As more and more jobs involve working with information mental health has a growing impact on our work ability.

Remember that the presence of psychological symptoms or suffering from mental disorder does not ecessarily mean that the person is permanently incapable to work. Although a longer sick leave may be needed to ensure recovery, it is not always the best solution. 

Researchers have concluded on a number of occasions that working is essentially good for mental health.

  1. Pay attention to how mental health and coping at work are discussed at your workplace. Strive to build a constructive and encouraging dialogue. 
  2. Make sure you understand what causes work stress. Never be content with the initial, easy impression.
  3. Take the stress factors and symptoms seriously also when the work gets done despite them. It may have just barely succeeded.
  4. Look into how the working conditions and the organisation of work could be accomodated to avoid any unnecessary stress.
  5. Accept unpleasant feelings and thoughts as part of normal life; no one needs to be at their best all the time.
  6. Discuss concerns and issues early on, keep a low threshold.
  7. Create a psychologically safe environment at your workplace to make it easier to talk about issues and symptoms. 

Promoting mental health at the workplace

It depends on the individual employees how difficult they find their situation. We all experience and cope with situations in our own way. In difficult life situations it is important to give space to unpleasant emotions and to deal with them.

Mental health is a continuum. As the figure below shows, various mild symptoms are very common. Remember that when an employee presents symptoms, measures carried out at the workplace and the understanding you show and the support you offer can make a big difference. However, if the situation becomes worse or drags on, it may be important to get help and support with a low threshold from, for example, occupational health care.

You can best promote mental health at your workplace by viewing difficult feelings, thoughts and symptoms as something appropriate and normal. If you suspect or notice that an employee presents psychological symptoms, the best you can do to help them is ask them about it, listen to them and talk to them, and find out together with them how you can support them at the workplace. Just knowing that the work allows for flexibility and that the workplace provides support can help relieve the employee’s symptoms.  

Approach mental disorders in the same way as you would any other health issues. Support other people at your workplace, talk to them and tell them that help is also available from occupational health care. Remember that you do not need to be able to resolve the employee’s problem yourself; however, do not completely outsource the resolution of the problem to external parties such as occupational health care or therapists. In addition to timely treatment, the measures carried out at the workplace and the support of the work community are decisive factors for recovery.