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Mental health and work productivity

Mental Health Pregnancy

If you have a mental health problem it can make your working life difficult, to say the least. Sometimes work itself can be the cause of mental ill health – the mental health charity Mind, for instance, says work is the biggest cause of stress in people’s lives, even more than debt and other financial problems (i).
Mental health problems may be a lot more common than you may think too, in or out of work. The NHS claims one in four adults experiences mental health difficulties at some point in their life (ii). According to Mind at least one in six workers is experiencing a common mental health problem (iii), while a policy paper produced for the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health suggests every organisation in Britain is affected by mental distress and ill health in the workforce (iv).
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And as you might imagine, mental ill health doesn’t just affect individuals – it’s bad for business too.

  • The World Health Organization claims depression and anxiety alone cost the global economy $1 trillion each year in lost productivity (v).

  • In this country, mental ill health has been estimated to cost £15 billion a year in reduced productivity, with £2.4 billion spent each year on replacing workers who’ve left their jobs because of mental ill health (iv).

Keeping workers mentally healthy, on the other hand, may help businesses achieve success, and there’s evidence that workplaces with high levels of mental wellbeing are up to 12 per cent more productive than others with lower levels (vi).

How does mental ill health affect work productivity?

If you have good mental health it can help you to be more productive in many ways – for instance, it helps you deal more effectively with challenges and it can help you make the most of your potential.
But there are also many ways poor mental health can have a negative effect on your productivity. Take depression, for instance. According to the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) depression interferes with your ability to complete physical work tasks about 20 per cent of the time and reduces your cognitive performance about 35 per cent of the time (vii).
Other ways having a mental health problem can affect how well you perform at work include:

  • It can make it harder for you to concentrate and focus.

  • It can drain your energy, stamina and motivation.

  • It can affect your confidence and self-esteem, making you doubt yourself and your abilities in the workplace.

  • It can make you less able to cope with criticism and negative feedback.

  • It can affect how well you adapt to change.

  • It can make handling time pressures and multiple tasks more difficult.

  • It can affect your ability to work as part of a team, as you may struggle to interact with your co-workers.

  • Finally it can increase your susceptibility to physical health problems (read more about this in our article Physical health and mental health: what’s the link?


How does work affect your mental health?

There are, of course, many ways that work can cause mental ill health or make an existing mental health condition worse. Having a high workload or an employer who has unrealistic expectations about what you can achieve is perhaps the most obvious. All those long working hours and the intense pressure to perform – it’s no wonder many people finish their working day feeling both physically and emotionally drained.
Indeed, one survey of mental health in the workplace, carried out by private UK healthcare provider Benenden Health, found increased workload is by far the biggest cause of mental health issues in the workplace, with almost four in 10 people citing it as the cause of their mental wellbeing problems (viii).

  • Many other workplace factors can contribute towards problems with mental health too, such as:

  • Relationship problems with employers, managers and co-workers (for advice read our article on Coping with bullying, anxiety and depression at work

  • Poor management, bad management practices 

  • Discrimination and harassment

  • Job insecurity (the constant threat of redundancy, for example)

  • Long commute (contributing to a poor work/life balance)

  • Uncomfortable working conditions, a poor physical work environment

  • Lack of engagement (such as having boring, monotonous work)

  • Poor or inadequate equipment and resources

  • Lack of workplace support for mental disorders


Stress in the workplace

Most of us also know what it’s like to feel stressed at work. Indeed, work-related stress is a hot topic these days. According to the TUC, research suggests up to 40 per cent of sickness absence is linked to stress in the workplace (ix). Yet stress itself is not actually a diagnosable mental health condition. According to the UK’s Health and Safety Executive, however, if you already have problems with your mental health, stress at work can make them more difficult to control (x).
Research by Mind meanwhile reveals the toll stress at work is taking on employees (xi):

  • When asked how workplace stress affects them, 21 per cent of workers say they have called in sick to avoid work.

  • 14 per cent say they resigned and 42 per cent have considered resigning because of stress at work.

While stress – work-related or otherwise – may not be a diagnosable condition, it often goes hand in hand with other mental health problems, sometimes causing similar symptoms. Most notably, people with work-related stress often also experience anxiety and/or depression.:

What are the different types of mental health problems?

Most of us know what it’s like to have problems with our mental health to some extent. It’s natural, after all, to feel a bit down from time to time, or to feel worried or stressed – both in and out of the workplace. The difference between a normal reaction to what’s happening in our lives and the development of mental ill health, however, can often be time.
For instance, if we feel worried or blue, those feelings tend to pass within a day or two. But if we are anxious or feel down most of the time rather than occasionally, our feelings can intensify, which can mean we need professional support and treatment to help us overcome our problems:
Anxiety  More than eight million people experience anxiety in the UK, with women twice as likely to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder as men (xii). Having feelings of anxiety most or all of the time, or feeling anxious about many different things rather than one in particular, is often a sign of a condition called generalised anxiety disorder (GAD).
Read more about what causes anxiety and ways to feel better in our guide to Anxiety symptoms
Depression   Feeling down for a few days every now and then is normal, but if you feel sad for weeks or months it’s a sign you could have depression. According to the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE), depressive disorders are very common and are among the leading causes of disability worldwide, with 4.5 per cent of people believed to be affected by depression in the UK (xiii). Mind describes depression as being low in spirits in its mildest form, and life threatening at its most severe because it can make you feel suicidal (xiv). 
Find out more about the signs and symptoms of depression and ways to cope with it in our guide
Other common mental health conditions that can affect your performance at work include:

  • Post-natal depression affects at least one in 10 women in the UK within a year of giving birth (xv), and can be a problem for some when returning to work after finishing maternity leave.

  • Obsessive compulsive disorder is a form of anxiety disorder, with experts believing it could affect around 12 in every 1,000 people in the UK (xvi). OCD can affect your work performance because it can make it difficult for you to concentrate, or if you’re obsessing over an intrusive thought it can take you longer to complete work tasks.

  • Phobias are also types of anxiety disorders and can often trigger panic attacks. At least one in 10 people have an occasional panic attack, but those who have them more frequently are said to have panic disorder (about one in 15 people) (xvii).

Meanwhile, less common but more severe mental health problems include:

  • Bipolar disorder, which used to be called manic depression, affects about two in every 100 people in the UK (xviii). If you have bipolar disorder (or bipolar affective disorder), you will experience periods when you have extreme mood swings (at one extreme you may feel depressed, while at the other you can feel high or elated, along with other symptoms). According to the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance in Chicago, 88 per cent of people with depression and bipolar disorder say their illness affects their ability to do their job (xvix).

  • Schizophrenia causes disordered ideas, beliefs and experiences – and despite what many people may think, it has nothing to do with having a split personality. It’s thought to affect around one in 100 people here in the UK (xx). While it is a serious mental disorder, many people affected by schizophrenia have long periods when their condition is well managed well and doesn’t affect them. Indeed, according to the recruitment organisation Remploy, many people with schizophrenia work in a range of jobs here in the UK (xxi). Avoiding stress, however, is important for someone affected by schizophrenia, which can be difficult in many workplaces.

Meanwhile other mental health conditions that can have an impact on work productivity include attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), eating disorders, alcohol and drug dependency problems, and dementia.

How to recognise a mental health problem

Lots of things can have an impact on your mental health, but how do you know when you’re developing a problem? There are many signs and symptoms to look out for, including the following:

  • Low mood 

  • Feelings of being overwhelmed

  • Frequently feeling sad and tearful

  • Lack of energy, fatigue

  • Constant worrying

  • Withdrawing from social activities

  • Difficulties controlling your emotions

  • Lack of interest in daily activities

  • Finding no pleasure in things you used to enjoy

  • Lack of concentration

  • Being easily distracted

  • Inability to make decisions

  • Irritability and lack of patience

  • Anger and aggression

  • Sleeping too much or too little

  • Drinking and/or smoking more than usual

At work, you may find you’re making more mistakes than usual or you may get to work late more often. You may also find it hard to motivate yourself and lose interest in what you’re doing, though on the other hand you may find yourself becoming more animated (hyper) and take on more work than you can manage.
Of course we’re all affected by some of these things from time to time – but it doesn’t automatically mean we’re developing a problem with our mental wellbeing. If, however, the way you feel is stopping you from getting on with your life, or if it’s having an impact on your nearest and dearest or other people around you (work colleagues, for instance), it may be a good idea to have a chat with your GP about it.

Helping others

You may, on the other hand, recognise some of the above signs in someone you work with. If so, giving them a bit of support and showing them that they’re not alone can make a big difference. It’s not always easy, however, to start a conversation about mental health, especially if it’s with someone from work who you don’t know that well.
The best way to start off is to simply ask them how they are in a warm and friendly manner. Find the right time and place to have your chat so you won’t be interrupted or overheard by others. Be open and honest with them, and above all, try to really listen to what they’re saying without interrupting or judging them. Providing a friendly ear may be all they need to feel a little bit better.

How can you improve your mental health at work?

While many employers may be more aware of mental health problems in the workplace these days, there’s still a lot of work to be done. A survey by private healthcare company Lime Insurance, for instance, has found only 16 per cent of UK workers feel very well supported at work when it comes to their mental health, with 81 per cent saying they want their employers to support their mental wellbeing (xxii).
So what can you do to support yourself?
According to the Mental Health Foundation we can all take steps to improve our own mental health (vi). Here are a few things you could try to make your working life more enjoyable, fulfilling and of course, productive:
Don’t bottle up your feelings   Talking about how you feel is arguably the most important thing you can do when you’re feeling emotionally out of sorts. If there’s someone at work you feel comfortable with, try opening up to them about what’s troubling you – or talk to someone outside work if that’s easier.
Take a break   It’s always tempting to try to catch up or get ahead by working through your lunch break. But working without breaks isn’t good for your mental health – or your productivity. Try to make sure you have a decent break at lunchtime, as well as regular mini-breaks throughout the day (if you work with screens it can help keep your eyes healthy too). 
Don’t be a martyr   If your workload is getting out of control, don’t just suffer in silence. Talk to your employer or manager about it, or ask a colleague if they can help relieve some of the pressure. Remember, you’re not a superhero, and – like the rest of us –  you may need a bit of a helping hand every now and then.
Go home on time   Working long hours may seem like an obvious way to achieve more at work, but it usually ends up doing the opposite, making you less productive not to mention increasing your risk of illness. Going home at the right time at the end of the day isn’t always easy to achieve, but try to make it a habit whenever you can. And when you do leave the workplace, try not to check your work emails or do extra work at home or during your commute.
Stay active   It goes without saying that regular physical activity can help you stay fit and well, not just physically but mentally too. But fitting a regular exercise schedule around already busy working hours can be a challenge. This is where taking that lunch break every day can help, as it can give you time for a brisk walk or even a quick exercise class once a week or so. Also try to build more general activity into your day. For instance, walk over to a colleague in another part of your workplace instead of emailing or phoning them, or get into the habit of using a bathroom on a different floor to take advantage of those stairs.
Eat healthily   Eating well is also important for your physical and mental wellbeing. But the average work environment isn’t always the best place to be if you’re trying to eat (and drink) healthily. Try to make time to prepare your own food based on nutritious ingredients to take to the workplace rather than relying unhealthy snacks. And don’t forget to drink plenty of water too rather than having cup after cup of vending machine coffee.
Meanwhile there are a few natural supplements you could consider taking to top up your nutrient intake whenever the going gets mentally tough at the office:
Gingko biloba   If you need a bit of a boost, there is some evidence to suggest this herbal remedy may help increase mental performance (xxiii). Thought to help with cognitive function, gingko may also help if you’re experiencing anxiety, with a study suggesting gingko extracts provide more effective anxiety relief than a placebo (xxiv).
High-strength fish oils   The omega-3 fatty acids found in oily fish such as mackerel, salmon, fresh tuna and sardines have well-known heart benefits. But they may be good for your brain too, including your memory and thinking skills – though the evidence to suggest this may be the case currently only shows they work for people who already have a decline in their cognitive functions. Another study, however, shows omega-3 fatty acids may help reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which may help the body cope with the effects of stress (xxv). If you’re a vegetarian or vegan you can now get these important omega-3s in a veggie/vegan-friendly formulation – look for omega-3 supplements that contain algae, which supply fish with omega-3s in the first place.
Vitamin B complex   The eight essential B vitamins have many roles in keeping the body functioning normally, plus experts also think they may be useful for tackling stress. Some researchers also believe they may help specifically with reducing workplace stress as well as reducing work absenteeism and increasing productivity (xxvi). B vitamins are found in a range of foods, but you may find it more convenient to top up your levels by taking a B complex supplement or even a multivitamin formula with good levels of all the Bs.
Turmeric   If work is getting you down, you may like to try taking a turmeric supplement. There is much interest in the use of the active compound in turmeric, curcumin, as a natural antidepressant. One review of six clinical trials found some support for curcumin as a natural antidepressant, with some of the trials also noting it may have anti-anxiety effects (xxvii). However the studies were small in scale and number, which led the reviewers have to call for more research in this promising area.
Zinc   This essential mineral is also needed for a number of body functions, and scientists believe it may help with depression too – though most studies have used animals rather than humans to test the link between zinc deficiency and depressive symptoms. There is, however, better evidence to suggest zinc helps reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol (xxviii), which means it could be helpful if you’re experiencing a lot of pressure at work.
Vitamin C   Most of us are aware of the benefits of vitamin C for healthy skin and bones, as well as helping with wound healing. But could it also be good for our mood? Experts from the US-based Mayo Clinic think it could, claiming that studies show people with lower-than-normal vitamin C levels enjoy a mood boost after taking vitamin C. They also suggest there’s evidence vitamin C may help lower anxiety levels, even in those with normal vitamin C levels (xxvix).
Phosphatidyl serine   This fatty substance (phospholipid) covers and protects the cells in your brain, carrying messages between them. It’s therefore thought that it is important for keeping your mind and memory sharp, especially as you get older (though studies that suggest levels of phosphatidyl serine fall in the brain with age are based on animals, not humans). However, one study that looked at the benefits of phosphatidyl serine for people who exercised found it may help protect against high levels of the stress hormone cortisol (xxx). You can find phosphatidyl serine in foods like egg yolks, soya beans, fish and meat, though many people take it in supplement form to help with their memory and cognition.
Rosemary essential oil   Both the scent and compounds found in the herb rosemary may be beneficial for your memory. Add some of this fragrant plant to your food, or look for a nutritional supplement that contains it. You can also release the delicious and invigorating smell of rosemary essential oil in a heat-based diffuser.
Having a mental health problem at work is no walk in the park, and many people feel they don’t get the support they deserve from their employers. But being aware of the signs and symptoms could help you nip any potential problem in the bud – either in yourself or in one of your colleagues. This guide also shows you ways you can help yourself stay mentally well in the workplace. We have more guides to a wide range of health conditions, both physical and mental. Take a tour around our pharmacy health library  to see what you can find out.


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Our Author - Christine Morgan


Christine Morgan has been a freelance health and wellbeing journalist for almost 20 years, having written for numerous publications including the Daily Mirror, S Magazine, Top Sante, Healthy, Woman & Home, Zest, Allergy, Healthy Times and Pregnancy & Birth; she has also edited several titles such as Women’ Health, Shine’s Real Health & Beauty and All About Health.

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