Mental health in the workplace

Depression, anxiety disorders and burnout: work can play a part in the development of mental problems and disorders. That makes it particularly important to protect mental health in the workplace – for individuals, the company and for society as a whole.

At a glance

  • Having a workplace that maintains and promotes mental health is important to a person’s working life and private life.
  • If employees are mentally stressed or ill, it also affects the company and society.
  • Work-related factors, such as a heavy workload or time and deadline pressure, contribute to mental stress and illness.
  • The protection of mental health in the workplace is enshrined in legislation.
  • Good working conditions can help maintain and improve the mental health and motivation of the employees.
A nurse sitting at a table with a cup. She is supporting herself on her left elbow and rubbing her hand across her face. A colleague is placing her hand on her shoulder to comfort her.

Why is it important to promote mental health in the workplace?

Many employees are familiar with mental stress in the workplace and the problems it causes. They feel that their work causes them mental strain or exposes them to significant stress. Symptoms such as tiredness, fatigue, exhaustion and sleep disturbances have increased among working people in recent years.

The number of early retirements and days lost to illness as a result of this stress is high. In 2019, mental illness was responsible for almost half of all cases of early retirement. In the same year, 17.5% of all workdays lost were due to mental illness and behavioral disorders. And this trend is on the rise. By comparison, this figure was just under 11% in 2004. Only muscular and skeletal illnesses cause more working days to be lost (25%).

The most common causes of incapacity for work: musculoskeletal problems 24.6%, mental health issues 17.5%, respiratory illnesses 14%, injury/poisoning 10.9%, other 32.9%.

Mental health issues are the second most commonly cited cause of incapacity for work, with only muscoloskeletal problems placing higher as a reason for people being unable to work. The third and fourth most frequent reasons are respiratory illnesses and injuries/poisoning respectively.

Promoting mental health in the workplace is a shared responsibility involving many parties. Employers have a particular responsibility. Today, there are many sources of information and support for better mental health in the workplace, provided by initiatives organized by the federal government, the federal states, as well as by accident insurance companies, health insurance providers, and other health sector bodies.

Important: Mental illnesses impact every area of life. Mental health is, in turn, a key factor in a contented private and working life. So mental health issues play a major role not only in terms of individuals, but also companies and society as a whole.

What is the connection between mental illness and work?

A person’s job and working conditions can affect their mental health. Work intensification and insufficient room for initiative and decision-making are sources of stress for many employees. This includes, for example, working to the limits of their capabilities, or being kept in the dark about plans for the future of the company and other relevant information.

Ongoing work-related stress increases the risk of falling ill with a mental health disorder by 50 percent. Depressive disorders and anxiety disorders are the most commonly diagnosed mental health disorders, also known as mental illnesses.

What is depression?

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However, obsessive-compulsive disorders, such as obsessive organizing or cleaning, and somatic symptom disorders – where there are persistent physical symptoms without an identifiable physical cause – are also significant in the context of mental health in the workplace. Addictions such as alcohol and drug dependency are other common mental health disorders. Another important mental health issue is burnout caused by chronic stress in the workplace, even though it is currently defined as a condition of physical and mental exhaustion rather than an illness.

What is a burnout?

The video below reports on the possible causes, risk factors, and symptoms of a burnout.

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The proportion of people of working age (18 to 65) affected by a mental illness remains at a consistently high level of 30% in Germany. Mental illness has a significant impact on employee productivity, causing the age of retirement of those affected to fall and number of days they are absent from work to rise.

Almost half of all early retirement is on mental health grounds.

The number of working days lost by employees due to mental illness has risen in recent years – from 24 days on average in 2004 to almost 30 in 2019. While mental illness is not the most common reason for days absent from work, it does account for the highest proportion of sick days taken. This has an impact on sick pay costs, for example – especially for companies that are required to pay this for the first 6 weeks.

Important: According to a nationwide study conducted in Germany, 4 out of 10 workers find it impossible to switch off from work during their free time. Being unable to switch off is a red flag for possible long-term work-related health issues.

What causes mental stress and illness?

Many factors play a role in mental health. So the precise reasons for mental disorders cannot always be easily identified. Research suggests that, in many cases, the world of work today tends to foster the development of mental stress and illness. However, it’s also important to remember that a well-designed workplace and workplace satisfaction can boost well-being and mental health.

Scientific research indicates that the following work-related factors in particular have an influence on mental health:

  • room for initiative and decision-making
  • labor intensity
  • working hours arrangements
  • work environment
  • the regulation of one’s own feelings and expressions for the purpose of the job (emotional labor)
  • camaraderie and team spirit
  • company culture/atmosphere and leadership
  • (lack of) safety in the workplace, occupational safety
  • work-life balance

These factors can have positive or negative effects on mental health. For example, a good working atmosphere has a positive effect, while a bad atmosphere at work or frequent conflict with colleagues or management can have a negative effect. In addition, the mental health of employees who have cause to be concerned about the safety of their workplace is put under much greater strain than the mental health of those who feel confident that their workplace is safe.

How is the protection of health in the workplace regulated by law?

German legislation recognizes that occupational health includes mental health considerations. The rules laid down in the Occupational Health and Safety Act (ArbSchG) of 1996 are fundamental. This act defines health as a broad concept and says, for example, that “work should be arranged in such a way that any risk to life and health should be avoided where possible, and the residual risk should be kept to a minimum”.

The aim is to “ensure humane working”. This includes mental aspects as well as physical ones. “Technology, work organization, other work conditions, social relationships, and environmental impacts in the workplace” have to be properly combined. The risk assessments which are a legal obligation should also cover mental stresses. Risk assessments are the main instrument used for preventive action to ensure workplace safety. They require employers to take steps to ensure that all potential sources of harm to their employees – both physical and mental – are identified and documented. They also require employers to initiate and implement actions to protect the (mental) health of their employees.

But mental health in the workplace also plays a role in other laws. These include, for example:

  • Occupational Safety Act (ASiG)
  • Workplaces Ordinance (ArbStättV)
  • Machinery Regulation
  • Social Code (SGB V)

Important: Occupational (workplace) safety includes mental health in the workplace. Surveys have shown that, in practice, employers do not always meet their obligations to incorporate mental health into workplace safety. However, the legal situation is clear – companies must pay attention to the mental health as well as the physical health of their staff.

How can mental health be protected in the workplace?

Measures to ensure that staff stay mentally healthy and happy in the workplace include the following:

  • giving them sufficient room for initiative and decision-making
  • ensuring that their workload is appropriate and realistic
  • cultivating a sense of mutual appreciation – both among colleagues and between staff and their managers
  • addressing and resolving conflict
  • ensuring that working hours enable a healthy work-life balance
  • providing job security – as far as possible
  • providing opportunities for ongoing training

It is largely the responsibility of employers to ensure that these measures are implemented in their workplace. However, employees can also play a role by raising these issues, making suggestions, or expressing their wishes to management – for example, a wish to do further training or to have more flexible working hours.

If someone is already experiencing problems, it’s best to address these as soon as possible. Simply sharing a problem with a colleague often helps. Sometimes, however, a conversation with a supervisor or manager is needed. Larger companies also have employee representatives, who are available to help colleagues with their problems and treat these in a confidential manner. If the problem cannot be resolved in spite of all efforts and if someone feels persistently or increasingly unhappy in their work situation, it may be advisable to change jobs.

Important: Mental health crises and mental illnesses are still a taboo subject in many companies. Dealing openly with the subject helps people to identify the early signs of mental issues in themselves and others and to prevent the development of a serious mental health disorder.

If a person is regularly experiencing work-related stress and is unable to switch off properly at home, it’s best if they can actively take steps themselves to counteract this stress. There are many effective measures and strategies for stress management and relaxation, including regular exercise or relaxation methods such as progressive muscle relaxation.

Where to go for more information about mental health in the workplace

Many independent online sources provide detailed information on mental health in the workplace.

The “psyGA” project’s online offering provides particularly detailed information. It has an online portal (in German) that is entirely dedicated to mental health in the workplace. psyGA is run by the Initiative Neue Qualität der Arbeit (INQA: New Quality of Work Initiative) which was launched by the Federal Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs in 2002. The INQA steering group includes, for example, the federal government, the federal states and local administration associations, employers’ federations, trade unions, companies, the Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and various experts.

The Psyche work program, which is part of the Joint German Occupational Safety and Health Strategy, provides a great deal of information and tips for risk assessments that cover mental stresses.

You can find more useful information about this topic on the website of the Federal Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs under Occupational Safety and Health, as well as on the website of the Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (“Bundesanstalt für Arbeitsschutz und Arbeitsmedizin”).

The BKK Dachverband e.V. (Umbrella Organization of Company Owned Health Insurance Funds) has published a brochure about mental illness at work (“Psychisch krank im Job”), which provides extensive information about mental health disorders.

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