Before we look at the impact of Mental Health in the Workplace and how we can improve it, let’s understand what Mental Health actually means. The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines Mental Health as the state of mental wellbeing that enables people to cope with the stresses of life, realise their abilities, learn well and work well, and contribute to their community. It is an integral component of health and wellbeing that unpins our individual and collective abilities to make decisions, build relationships and shape the world in which we live.
Mental health is more than the absence of mental disorders. It is a complex spectrum which is experienced differently from one person to the next. Exposure to unfavourable social, economic, geopolitical and environmental circumstances, including poverty, violence, inequality and environmental deprivation, also increases people’s risk of experiencing mental health conditions.
According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), in 2020, governments worldwide spent an average of just two per cent of health budgets on mental health, with lower-middle income countries investing less than one per cent.
Mental Health in the Workplace
According to the WHO, almost 60% of the world’s population are currently in work and 15% of working-age adults live with a mental health issue. The WHO estimates that 12 billion working days are lost to depression and anxiety alone, costing the global economy US$ 1 trillion each year, mainly from reduced productivity. Worldwide, Covid-19 triggered a 25% increase in general anxiety and depression.
Work can be a protective factor for mental health, but it can also contribute to worsening mental health. Work-related mental health conditions are preventable.
What causes poor mental health in the workplace and how can we improve it?
At work, risks to mental health may be related to job content or work schedule, specific characteristics of the workplace, or opportunities for career development. According to the WHO, risks to mental health in the workplace may include the following:
- under-use of skills or being under-skilled for the task;
- excessive workloads or work pace, and understaffing;
- long, unsocial or inflexible hours;
- lack of control over job design or workload;
- unsafe or poor physical working conditions. For example, sitting on a work chair that does not meet the ergonomic needs of the person and tasks that need to be performed.
- organizational culture that enables negative behaviours;
- limited support from colleagues or authoritarian supervision;
- violence, harassment or bullying;
- discrimination and exclusion;
- unclear job role;
- under- or over-promotion;
- job insecurity, inadequate pay, or poor investment in career development; and
- conflicting home/work demands.
“As people spend a large proportion of their lives in work – a safe and healthy working environment is critical. We need to invest to build a culture of prevention around mental health at work, reshape the work environment to stop stigma and social exclusion, and ensure employees with mental health conditions feel protected and supported,”
Guy Ryder, ILO Director-General.
How does a poor sitting posture affect our mental health in the workplace?
For the remainder of this article I will focus on the effects of sitting on the human body and how this may impact our mental health.
A study by the National Library of Medicine of over 34000 university students in 2018, found that sedentary behaviour was significantly associated with higher rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide. In contrast, students who were physically active showed an inverse association.
Back Pain and Mental Health
This is no surprise as an earlier study by Medical News Today involving almost 200 000 participants, found that individuals who have back problems are more likely to also experience a range of mental health issues. The analysis of the data gathered showed that when compared with people without back pain, those who did experience back pain were more than twice as likely to experience one of five mental health conditions: anxiety, depression, psychosis, stress and sleep deprivation. People with chronic back pain were also three times more likely to experience a depressive episode. Interestingly, the results were similar across all lower- and middle-income countries, regardless of their standing on the socioeconomic ladder. Breaking Back – What actually happens when you sit?
People with back pain were more than twice as likely to experience anxiety, depression, psychosis, stress and sleep deprivation.
Interestingly, in another study, it was found that the converse was also true. Research suggests that people with depression are 60% more likely to develop back pain than people who do not have depression. However, depression is only one of the possible causes of back pain.
Potential causes of back pain that may lead to mental health problems at home and in the workplace
Pain in any part of the back becomes more likely as a person ages. Back pain is typical in people aged 30 to 60, but it can affect people of any age.
There are a number of different forms of arthritis, some of which can affect the back.
3. Fractured vertebrae
A fracture or broken bone can occur in any of the vertebrae in the middle back as a result of a sports injury, car crash, or fall. Extreme deterioration of the spine over time, such as from osteoarthritis, can also cause a fractured vertebra.
4. Herniated disks
Disks are located between the vertebrae and act as shock-absorbing cushions. The disks are filled with liquid and can rupture or bulge outward. This is known as a herniated disk, slipped disk, or ruptured disk, and it puts pressure on the surrounding nerves. A herniated disk in the middle back does not always cause symptoms, but it may result in pain, tingling, or numbness.
5. Kidney problems
Kidney problems can cause pain in the middle back, just under the ribcage on either side of the spine. The most common causes of kidney pain are infections and kidney stones.
A lack of exercise leads to weak muscles, which can contribute to pain. People who exercise using improper lifting techniques can also experience pain in the back. Research suggests that people who smoke tobacco also have an increased risk of developing chronic back pain. Smoking is also thought to reduce the nutrient supply to the spinal disks, which increases the risk of pain, degeneration, and injury. How your lifestyle can contribute to stress and mental health problems in the workplace.
7. Muscle strain or sprain
Repeatedly lifting heavy objects or carrying items incorrectly can cause the muscles and ligaments in the back to stretch or tear.
Being overweight puts additional strain on the muscles, bones, and other structures in the back.
Osteoporosis is a type of bone disease that results in brittle bones. It occurs when the body does not make enough new bone to replace natural bone loss. Approximately 54 million people in the U.S. have osteoporosis or are at risk of developing it. People with osteoporosis in the back can experience middle back pain due to strains or compression fractures.
10. Poor posture
Incorrect posture while sitting or standing is a leading cause of back pain. Slouching increases pressure on the spine and leads to strained muscles as they try to maintain balance. Back support for an office chair – why it’s important
Scoliosis causes the spine to curve sideways. It leads to an uneven distribution of weight throughout the back and may cause middle back pain.
If a tumor grows in the middle back, it can affect spinal alignment and put pressure on the nearby nerves, muscles, and ligaments.
Chronic back pain, depression and mental health in the workplace
Depression is by far the most common ailment associated with chronic back pain. The type of depression that often accompanies chronic pain is referred to as major or clinical depression. This depression goes beyond what would be considered normal sadness or "feeling down". The symptoms of major depression occur daily for at least 2 weeks and include at least 5 of the following:
- A predominant mood that is depressed, sad, blue, hopeless, low, or irritable, which may include periodic crying spells
- Poor appetite or significant weight loss or increased appetite or weight gain
- Sleep problems, either too much (hypersomnia) or too little sleep (hyposomnia)
- Feeling agitated (restless) or sluggish (low energy or fatigue)
- Loss of interest or pleasure in usual activities
- Decreased sex drive
- Feeling of worthlessness and/or guilt
- Problems with concentration or memory
- Thoughts of death, suicide, or wishing to be dead.
According to Health Central, "dealing with chronic back pain can be difficult for anyone. But when that pain comes with psychological issues such as excessive stress, anxiety, or depression, it can make coping even harder. That’s because mental distress may exacerbate pain, and pain can worsen mental distress, creating a vicious cycle."
How can back pain lead to depression and mental health problems?
Only once we understand the symptoms of back pain and how they may impact mental health at home and in the workplace, can we look at methods to improve it.
- The pain often makes it difficult to sleep, leading to fatigue and irritability during the day. Because patients with back pain have difficulty with most movement, they often move slowly and carefully, spending most of their time at home away from others. This leads to social isolation and a lack of enjoyable activities.
- Due to the inability to work, there may also be financial difficulties that begin to impact the entire family.
- Beyond the pain itself, there may be gastrointestinal distress caused by anti-inflammatory medication and a general feeling of mental dullness from pain medications.
- The pain is distracting, leading to memory and concentration difficulties.
- Sexual activity is often the last thing on the person’s mind, and this causes more stress in the patient’s relationships.
Understandably, these symptoms accompanying chronic back pain or neck pain may lead to mental health problems at home and in the workplace, including feelings of despair, hopelessness and other symptoms of a major depression or clinical depression.
How can an ergonomic office chair help with depression?
Research shows that Mental Health issues can lead to back pain and also conversely, back pain can lead to Mental Health problems that manifest themselves both at home and in the workplace. From a seating perspective, a correctly selected ergonomic chair or orthopedic chair can improve the management of Mental Health in the workplace, specifically if this is caused by back pain.
A good ergonomic office chair can improve posture and therefore reduce back pain, which in turn may prevent depression.
Should Mental health issues result in back pain, using an ergonomic chair in your workplace will at least lessen the strain on the back and not escalate the issues. Office and Desk Chairs: 10 articles to read before you buy