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Poor mental health among employees is one of the greatest challenges facing organizations today. It impacts on performance, productivity and – of course – the bottom line.

Sophie Hennekam, a professor in the human resources management department at Audencia Business School in France, has published a study, Coping with mental health conditions at work and its impact on self-perceived job performance, with co-authors Sarah Richard, from Strasbourg Business School and François Grima, of the Université Paris-Est Créteil Val de Marne. In this Q&A, she shares the main findings of her research.

Sally Percy: How big a problem is mental health?

Professor Sophie Hennekam: More and more people are experiencing mental health issues. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one in four people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives. Women are especially at risk, with higher rates for common mental disorders such as depression, anxiety and somatic complaints.

Percy: Why is mental health a particular problem for employers?

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Hennekam: The WHO estimates that mental health issues cost the global economy $1 trillion in lost productivity each year. A report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development has estimated that the total costs of mental ill health across the current 28 EU countries are over $600 billion or more than 4% of GDP.

Mental health conditions often affect an employee’s functioning in the workplace. So, at Audencia, we decided to conduct a study on how employees’ mental health conditions impact their performance. For the study, we surveyed more than 250 people in employment across a range of sectors, using open questions. We then analysed the results. Our aim was to better understand how individuals with mental health issues navigate the workplace and cope with their mental health while in employment. We also wanted to gain an insight into how their conditions affect their work.

Percy: What did you discover?

Hennekam: Mental health conditions can fluctuate, meaning that one day someone is fully functional, while another day, it might be difficult for them to get out of bed. Although the participants in our study worked in different sectors – such as administration, customer services, education, healthcare, hospitality and retail – we observed several patterns in the way they dealt with their mental health conditions at work.

Some individuals explained that they used substance abuse and self-harm to relieve tensions. Others tried to suppress or hide the symptoms of their mental health condition at work, which was tiring and stressful and sometimes distracted them from their actual work.

Some individuals forced themselves to continue to work when they were feeling unwell. They stated that even when they felt they should take time off, they felt obliged to continue working. They also explained that trying to focus on their job and keep busy helped them to get through the day and perform normally. Working became a sort of distraction from their problems and sometimes helped to override their mental health conditions for a while.

Over time, however, the research participants indicated that they usually had to rest and look after themselves rather than ignore their symptoms and continue working, since their mental health conditions were negatively impacting their performance at work. Indeed, these strategies were not very successful over the long run because they did not help our participants to navigate the workplace while struggling with their mental health.

Percy: How did mental ill health impact on the quality of work?

Hennekam: The participants explained that their mental health conditions had indeed had an impact on the quality of their work, the pace at which they conducted their tasks and the number of mistakes they made. They often found it difficult to concentrate or stay focused on their tasks. They also experienced big shifts in energy and were therefore sometimes slower and more forgetful.

Percy: Did the research reveal anything interesting about how people can work more effectively while battling mental health issues?

Hennekam: It revealed a few successful strategies that allow participants to juggle both workplace demands and their mental health needs. For example, individuals fared better at work if they accepted their condition, rather than fought it, and also if they allowed themselves to take some time off earlier on. Also, proper medication and counselling had a positive effect on their work performance.

Similarly, mindfulness activities such as yoga or breathing exercises helped regulate symptoms. The use of humor while interacting with others at work and transparent communication with their direct manager and co-workers allowed them to explain to others how they were doing. Finally, some individuals adopted a compensation strategy in which they tried to compensate for their reduction in speed, quality or reactivity at work during difficult episodes by working harder and doing more during periods in which they felt well.

Percy: What are your main learnings from the research?

Hennekam: It is clear that being open about one’s mental health at work – accepting it and allowing oneself to take time off and get treatment – helps individuals to regulate and reduce their symptoms. Unfortunately, many employees with mental health conditions do not ask for treatment. In addition, many organizations do not provide workplace adaptations, such as offering people the possibility to work from home, take breaks or go to a quiet space where they could ground themselves. These would help individuals struggling with poor mental health to meet the demands of their job. And sadly, the majority of companies are unprepared to support employees with mental health conditions. Therefore, raising awareness, providing relevant workplace adaptations, transparent communication and organizational support are key to improving the working lives of people with mental health conditions.