In the modern office environment, computers allow us to work faster and more efficiently, often requiring less physical and social interaction with others and increasing the potential for poor mental health to develop. Together with a growing importance of knowledge and demand for brain-based skills, these type of work factors may trigger the onset of mental disorders such as stress, depression and anxiety.
Work is generally good for mental health and personal wellbeing and often strongly connected to a person’s sense of identity. It can play an important role in providing structure and purpose, opportunities for development and use of skills, social interaction and increased feelings of self worth. There are circumstances, however, in which work can have damaging effects on health and wellbeing. Risks to psychological health at work may arise from organisational or personal factors such as poor design of work and jobs, poor communication and interpersonal relationships, bullying or fatigue.
Organisations that are able to successfully create and sustain an office environment that promotes good mental health are more likely to minimise the negative financial impact that can result from absenteeism, high staff turnover, workers compensation claims and low morale.
Stress can either positively or negatively impact a person’s wellbeing. A small amount of stress can be beneficial to a person by challenging, motivating or stimulating them, often leading to greater performance and job satisfaction. However, when stress or pressure becomes too much and the person feels that they are unable to cope successfully with a situation, they can become distressed, negatively impacting their ability to work. Several studies have found that work ability for office workers is strongly related to mental and physical health (including factors such as ability to work in a team, stress handling skills, self-development and to a lesser extent with stressful life events, lack of physical activity and obesity).
People can have very different stress responses to the same situations. In general, work situations are experienced as stressful when the demands made on the person do not match the resources available or do not meet the person’s needs and motivation. Furthermore, an imbalance between work and family life is often a strong factor associated with work stress and mental disorders.
Stress may also arise from the type or amount of work, for example:
- Work which is boring or lacks variety;
- Too much or too little work;
- Work that involves employees having to hide their feelings when dealing with customers, or that goes against their personal or social standards;
- Unpredictable, long or unsocial working hours;
- Lack of participation or control in decisions made about work or control over how it is done; or
- Environmental conditions such as poor lighting, too much noise, heat and difficult or inadequate equipment or technology.
Stress can also arise from the social and organisational environment, for example:
- Inadequate communication systems with supervisors or co-workers;
- Uncertainty, e.g. no clear instructions on what employees are expected to do;
- Job change, e.g. in task content, hours, location, supervision, without adequate consultation;
- Recruitment policies which fail to ensure employees have suitable skills for the work and inadequate training;
- Under/over promotion or job insecurity;
- Work involving reward systems (pay, recognition or promotion) leading to employees working long hours, taking work home or pushing themselves to a point where their health and safety is at risk;
- Poor relationships between supervisors, peers or others at work;
- Emotionally or physically demanding jobs with inadequate support; or
- Inconsistent people management or practices inconsistent with workplace policies.
Reducing risks to mental health can improve productivity, decrease absenteeism and dissatisfaction and improve retention of staff. Some strategies that focus on reducing this risk are:
- Designing jobs so that work demands meet capabilities – eg. modifiying the job, sharing the workload differently, setting reasonable deadlines and quality standards, arranging sufficient resources and time to do the work;
- Ensuring suitable work schedules and work/life balance policies – eg. providing suitable rest breaks, enough notice for people to prepare when hours of work are changed, providing flexible working arrangements;
- Improving workplace consultation and employee participation in decision-making;
- Improving equipment, technology, facilities and physical working conditions such as lighting, noise and the thermal environment;
- Ensuring there are effective opportunities for communication, consultation and feedback between supervisors and staff or co-workers;
- Developing a supportive workplace culture – eg. by ensuring suitable leadership which delegates, encourages participation and initiative, enhances cooperation and teamwork, and makes clear the organisations objectives;
- Establishing clear roles, reviewing and where necessary modifying roles if conflicts emerge;
- Providing training and information about risks to mental health from stress; and
- Establishing a process for reporting and responding to reports of stress, including ways to identify early signs of stress.
Workplace bullying is repeated unreasonable behaviour directed towards a worker or group of workers that places their health or safety at risk and is likely to victimise, humiliate, undermine or threaten them. Bullying behaviour most commonly includes verbal abuse, exclusion or isolation of particular workers, harrassment or intimidation and unreasonable threats of dismissal. Less direct forms of bullying include withholding of information, ignoring requests, assigning meaningless tasks unrelated to a worker’s job or tasks that are impossible to successfully complete or changing work rosters with the deliberate intention of inconveniencing the worker.
Strategies to combat workplace bullying are:
- Developing and communicating a ‘no bullying’ policy and procedures for reporting, investigating and resolving incidents;
- Raising awareness to help employees recognise the circumstances in which workplace bullying may be more likely to occur;
- Providing appropriate training, particularly for those with supervisory roles;
- Protecting at risk groups (new employees, trainees, contractors or casual workers, minority ethnic groups or particular age groups or genders) by introducing a ‘buddy’ or mentor system; and
- Providing additional training, for example, in workplace diversity.
Fatigue is an acute or chronic state of tiredness which affects employee performance, safety and health and requires rest or sleep for recovery. Fatigue factors common to an office environment include inadequate rest breaks, mentally demanding work, long periods of time awake (including long commute times), work requirements/schedules or reward systems that provide incentives to work longer and harder than may be safe.
Where reasonably practicable, work schedules should aim to eliminate early morning start times (before 6am), late finish times, long hours of work and the need to work overtime. Where not possible, the following strategies can help to reduce fatigue in the workplace:
- Improving shift schedules or rosters to prevent build-up of sleep debt;
- Providing back-up for absences rather than having others work longer hours to compensate;
- Introducing incentives that reward efficiency and competency as opposed to working longer hours;
- Providing adequate rest breaks and an environment conducive to rest (encourage employees to stop for a lunch break);
- Providing training and information about risks to health and safety from fatigue; and
- Providing safe travel arrangements for employees following long hours of work.
Employees also need to be proactive about managing their health to prevent fatigue by maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Getting adequate sleep, eating healthy foods, drinking plenty of water to stay hydrated, stopping for lunch and other breaks and limiting caffeine consumption.
Related articles in this series
For more information on workplace health including office ergonomics series, useful tips on avoiding injuries in the workplace and costs on the workforce, see Workplace Health.
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