Mental health is historically a topic brushed aside, stigmatized, down-played or little studied. Today, we make strides all the time in how we approach mental illness, its causes, and how to address it effectively and humanely. An important shift in this development is the openness common people have to discussing this issue and their personal experiences. The brain is a physical organ, and, as such, works in accordance to how well it is managed. This could include anything from eating habits to exercising habits, medication taken to the functionality of the rest of the body. Important too are factors that influence how the brain actually processes information, like childhood experiences. One such influencer that I think is important to the mental health discussion of adults is the same’s relation to work environments.
A full-time worker who works five days a week will spend at least eight hours a day at their place of employment — a third of a day; that is a long time to spend in the same place doing the same thing. Assuming the full-time worker gets the recommended eight hours of sleep, and depending on how their schedules align, that full-time worker may spend more time with their coworkers than their own family. Work is a huge part of our lives and often requires our most important organ, the brain, to do it, so if something in the work environment were to perturb that organ, it could have huge effects on its health.
Humans have massive brains compared to the size of their bodies. The human brain is the largest single consumer of energy in the body — slurping up 20% of the total energy in the body. Such an organ like that does not like to be idle; it wants to flourish, to create, to inspire — and even to work. The World Health Organization (WHO) lays out clearly that “work is good for mental health,” while being sure to reinforce that “a negative working environment can lead to physical and mental health problems.”
A positive working environment, as described by WHO is “one where workers and managers actively contribute to the working environment by promoting and protecting the health, safety and well-being of all employees.” Similarly, a negative working environment would be the opposite; where blasé attitudes toward workers’ safety, poor communication, low morale and inflexible working hours dominate. It is easy to see why a person would be adversely affected in an environment like that; it breeds resentment, feelings of low worth and helplessness. Negative working environments open the door for many of the familiar names and faces of mental illness like depression, anxiety and stress.
Perhaps if people spent only a short time in such an off-putting environment, issues would not develop as quickly or as severely, but as said before, a third of the adult life is dedicated thoroughly to what is essentially a second home and family, and so it would be a mistake to consider any degree of dysfunction allowable within it.
I have dedicated about half of this article to the problems work can have on mental health, so solutions are probably in order. The first one, and probably the one everyone reading this immediately thought of, is to simply not create a bad work environment. Communication between managers and workers and workers with other workers is universally agreed upon to be necessary for anything to work in a business. The next fix to address would be having a clearly defined job with understood responsibilities with the necessary resources to complete. Even if you personally are enjoying the status of your work environment, others may not, and simple things like supporting them or helping with their workload if you have time can go a long way in showing solidarity and connection.
I could go on through my aforementioned negative-work environment list and just flip them to sound good, but here’s the thing: most people are not the ones in charge and able to make decisions on how the work environment is set up or operates. Most people (me included) are the peons who work in the environment and do not decide how it runs. While this is true, what probably is not true is the assumption that all bosses are heartless, profit-seeking, amoral suits who are willing to create and expand the mental strife of their workers to save a few cents on the dollar; they are probably people open to advice and suggestion, especially if it means more efficiency. If you are having an issue at your job that causes you mental distress, you would be absolutely in the right to notify your boss and explain how they might be able to alleviate it. Maybe you feel you get assigned work that you were not hired to do, maybe your coworkers are bullies, maybe you do not have enough flexibility in your schedule to accommodate your personal life; whatever it is, you are entitled to make an attempt to correct it.
Work is an essential fixture of the human condition, but it is not necessary for it to be something that is dreaded. No one should spend 50 or so years of their life to something that does not bring them joy, fulfillment or satisfaction.