Mental Health at Work: How to Care for Yourself in These Stressful Jobs
Let’s face it—no matter what your career, you’re likely to experience some sort of stress from time to time. Whether it’s the hours, pace, colleagues, or clients, every job from entry-level to executive will be emotionally and mentally challenging at some point. In fact, a survey from Mental Health America found 85% of employees say that workplace stress affects their mental health and 83% feel emotionally drained from work.
That said, some careers have a higher risk for mental health issues than others. For various reasons, certain jobs and industries are associated with increased rates of depression, suicide, and other mental health conditions that substantially impact people’s productivity, happiness, safety, and satisfaction at work.
This guide will explore the complexities of mental health at work, talk about the occupations that put you most at risk, and provide you with tips for supporting your mental health day in and day out.
Why Is Mental Health Important?
In a nutshell, mental health encompasses our psychological, emotional, and social well-being and impacts how we feel, think, and act. The state of our mental health determines everything from how we respond to stress to how we navigate relationships and make decisions. For people who struggle with mental health issues, a variety of factors can be contributors—including genetics, brain chemistry, family history, and life situations and experiences.
Poor mental health can manifest in countless ways, from feeling scared and worried or sleeping too much to unexplained aches and pains and the inability to perform normal daily tasks. If your mental health is suffering, chances are many other aspects of your life are as well.
On the other hand, good mental health enables you to be productive in work and in life, cope with stresses as they come, and make meaningful contributions to your community, work, family, and friends.
Poor Workplace Mental Health Is Common
Poor mental health will affect every aspect of your life, but its effect on your work can range from moderately problematic to downright dangerous, depending on your job.
Suppose, for instance, you work in a busy call center, and the increasing stress of having to deal with angry customers is making you fall behind. Not only is your productivity reduced, but the stress and dissatisfaction are affecting your attitude at work, and your manager has put you on a performance plan until you can meet targets. Your job may be in jeopardy, and the stress and mental health challenges are likely bleeding over into other aspects of your life.
Now, consider a nursing career. Perhaps you’re working long shifts in a hospital with a shortage of nurses, and the pace of the job, the suffering you witness, and the number of hours you must work are making you feel unusually tired, forgetful, and disengaged. In this scenario, not only does it affect you personally, but your poor mental health could have dire consequences should you make a mistake that harms a patient you’re caring for.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), mental health challenges and stress at work can negatively impact an employee’s:
- Job productivity and performance
- Engagement with work
- Communication with colleagues
- Daily functioning and physical capability
Unfortunately, poor mental health in the workplace is rampant. An estimated 200 million workdays are lost every year in the United States due to mental health conditions, costing $16.8 billion in employee productivity. And with 19.2% of American adults receiving mental health treatment in 2019, that means one-fifth—or more, assuming some who need treatment aren’t receiving it—of the eligible workforce is dealing with mental health challenges severe enough to affect their work. And the COVID-19 pandemic may have only worsened the situation for many since those statistics were gathered; learn more about COVID-related workplace stress below.
Particularly for adults working in at-risk professions, poor mental health stands to make an even bigger impact on their everyday emotional and psychological health due to the occupational stress they experience.
What Is Occupational Stress?
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), occupational stress is defined as “a physiological and psychological response to events or conditions in the workplace that is detrimental to health and well-being. It is influenced by such factors as autonomy and independence, decision latitude, workload, level of responsibility, job security, physical environment and safety, the nature and pace of work, and relationships with coworkers and supervisors.”
In other words, people experience work-related stress when their work pressures and demands are not matched to or exceed their knowledge, skills, and ability to cope.
Causes of Work-Related Stress
The World Health Organization (WHO) explains that stress at work falls into two categories: work contents and work context.
Content of the job
- Under-stimulation, monotony, lack of variety, meaningless tasks
Workload and pace
- Working under time pressure, too much or too little to do
- Strict or inflexible; unpredictable, long and unsocial; badly designed shift systems
Participation and control
- Lack of participation in decision-making; lack of control over work processes, pace, hours, methods, and the work environment
Career development, status, and pay
- Job insecurity, lack of promotion opportunities, under- or over-promotion, work of low social value, piece-rate payment schemes, unclear or unfair performance evaluation systems, being over- or under-skilled for a job
Worker’s role in the organization
- Unclear role, conflicting roles
- Inadequate, inconsiderate, or unsupportive supervision; poor relationships with colleagues; bullying or harassment and violence; isolated or solitary work
- Poor communication, poor leadership, lack of behavioral rule, lack of clarity about organizational objectives, structures, and strategies
- Conflicting demands of work and home, lack of support for domestic problems at work, lack of support for work problems at home, lack of organizational rules and policies to support work-life balance
Other leading causes of occupational stress include high demands with low control, uncertainty about workplace aspects, and poorly managed conflict at work.
The five main psychological effects of mental health issues from work-related stressors are depression, anxiety, loss of concentration, changes in behavior, and physical symptoms, such as back, neck, and shoulder pain.
Top Occupations at Risk for Mental Health Challenges
While every job can be challenging to mental health in some respect, certain careers are associated with an increased risk for mental health issues. These are five occupations that can make it harder to stay emotionally and psychologically healthy on the job.
First Responders and Mental Health
There’s no doubt that first responders—including police officers, firefighters, and emergency medical services (EMS) personnel—encounter significant stress daily. As the first to respond to various natural and human-caused disasters, these workers are frequently exposed to grief, loss, pain, injuries, and death. The nature of the work necessitates long hours, disrupted sleep, frequent shifts, and threats to personal safety, all of which negatively impact mental health.
According to Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) statistics, first responders have an increased risk of depression, stress and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse, and suicide or suicidal ideation. An estimated 30% of first responders develop mental or behavioral health conditions, compared to 20% in the general population.
First responders encompass three main career categories.
Emergency Medical Services
For EMS personnel, the pace of work is a large contributing factor to mental health challenges. Research indicates that 69% of workers haven’t had enough time to recover between working traumatic situations, leading to various conditions:
- 6.8% experience depression, up to 21.4% during major disasters
- 5.9% are stressed, and 16.8% have had probable PTSD
- Up to 40% have high-risk alcohol and drug use rates
- 28% have felt life isn’t worth living, 10.4% have had serious suicidal ideation, and 3.1% have attempted suicide
- 80% to 100% of EMTs are exposed to traumatic events, and more than 20% experience PTSD
With erratic sleep schedules and continual exposure to traumatic experiences, firefighters also experience significant mental health challenges.
- Over 50% of firefighter deaths are due to stress and exhaustion
- Recent binge or heavy drinking has been reported in 50% of male firefighters
- 22.2% of female career firefighters and 38.5% of female volunteer firefighters are at risk of depression
- 46.8% of firefighters have had suicidal ideation, and 15.5% have attempted suicide (vs. 13.5% and 4.6%, respectively, in the general U.S. population)
Dangerous work and routine exposure to critical incidents and traumatic events put police officers at a greater risk of having poor mental health. In fact, 75% of officers have reported experiencing a traumatic event.
- After 9/11, police officers had a 24.7% prevalence of depression and 47.7% prevalence of anxiety and depression.
- PTSD has been reported in between 7% to 19% of police officers following various traumatic events.
- After Hurricane Katrina, the average number of alcoholic drinks among police officers increased from two to seven per day.
- Women police officers have a lifetime suicidal ideation prevalence of 25%, with 23.1% for male police officers.
- Between 125 and 300 police officers commit suicide each year.
How to Help Your Mental Health if You’re a First Responder
Childcare Workers and Mental Health
Low wages combined with high turnover, undervalued labor, poor working conditions, long hours, and physically and emotionally demanding tasks make childcare another profession at higher risk for poor mental health.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), childcare workers made an average hourly wage of $12.88 in 2020, with the lowest 10% making just $8.84 an hour. That’s only $26,790 and $18,380 per year, respectively, which falls just at or below the federal poverty level for a family of four. Low wages mean less access to health insurance, healthy food, paid time off, and other needs or benefits that can help workers maintain their physical and mental health.
Approximately 59% of children under the age of five in the United States are enrolled in some form of non-parental childcare. If the workers who care for our children at their most crucial stages of growth and development are struggling with their own mental health, they’re unable to provide the interactions and experiences kids need for healthy development.
- 40% of early childcare and education workers in a 2019 study were clinically depressed, which is four times the prevalence (10.4%) in women overall.
- In a study from 2017, 36.1% of female childcare providers reported depression scores that revealed clinical depression.
COVID-19 was particularly difficult for childcare workers, who were suddenly tasked with carrying the burden of schools closing and many parents having to work from home. In a survey of Nebraska childcare providers, respondents reported several mental health challenges during the pandemic:
- Changes to sleep (78.7%)
- Difficulty concentrating (54.7%)
- Changes in eating (52.1%)
- Feelings of social isolation (65.9%)
- Feelings of lack of control (62.4%)
- Feelings of sadness and depression (48.6%)
- Feeling negative or anxious about the future (71%)
How to Help Your Mental Health if You’re a Childcare Worker
Construction Workers and Mental Health
Although construction workers tend to make good salaries, the construction industry has the second-highest rate of suicide among male workers in the U.S. A 2018 survey of construction workers found that time, personal finances, and the nature of tasks contributed to job stress and poor mental health. And “lack of personal and family time, increases in the cost of living, and fears about job security all act as powerful stressors” for those in construction jobs. Seasonal, cyclical jobs and long, irregular hours also contribute to mental health challenges.
To cope with these job stressors, some construction workers turn to substance abuse. SAMHSA data indicates that 16.5% of people working in the industry participate in heavy alcohol use—defined as five or more drinks on one occasion for five or more days in the past month. This is one of the highest rates of heavy alcohol use across all industries, second only to mining. In addition, research shows that construction workers are six to seven times more likely to die from an opioid overdose than workers in other jobs.
Poor mental health and the substance abuse that may accompany it can have devastating consequences in construction, where exhaustion, distraction, loss of focus, and depression can make an already risky job even more so.
- In 2016, the suicide rate in construction was 49.4 per 100,000, which is five times greater than the rate of all construction-related injuries in 2018.
- Male construction workers have a suicide rate that’s 65% higher than all other male U.S. workers.
- Women in construction and extraction have the highest suicide rates of all industries, at 143.3 per 100,000.
- Injured workers are 45% more likely to be depressed than non-injured workers.
- Reasons for not seeking care include shame and stigma (78%), fear of peer judgment (77%), fear of negative job consequences (55%), and lack of knowledge of how to access care (46%).
How to Help Your Mental Health if You’re a Construction Worker
Nurses and Mental Health
Nurses comprise the largest workforce in healthcare, outnumbering physicians by three to one. But with long hours, repeated exposure to trauma and suffering, nationwide nurse shortages, and verbal and physical abuse on the job, nurses are particularly susceptible to mental health issues—including anxiety, depression, PTSD, and suicide.
While nursing has always been a stressful profession, COVID-19 took an immense toll on these frontline heroes. In addition to the “normal” stressors of work, nurses suddenly had to deal with the stress of “insufficient resource trauma,” stemming from not having enough staff, supplies, or resources to do their jobs safely.
And nursing is one career where poor mental health can have a serious negative impact on others. Nurses with poor physical or mental health (54% of them) are 26% to 71% more likely to report making medical errors.
- In a survey from the American Nurses Association, 87% of nurses are afraid to go to work during the pandemic.
- Female nurses have a 58% higher suicide rate than the general female population.
- Male nurses have a 41% higher suicide rate than the general male population.
- 35% to 54% of nurses and physicians have symptoms of burnout.
- Nurses are twice as likely (19% vs. 8%) to have clinical depression than the general population.
- Of nurses treating COVID-19 patients, 34% experience insomnia, 45% experience anxiety, 50% experience depression, and 71% experience distress.
- Pre-pandemic, in a survey of critical care nurses, 40% had symptoms of depression, and 60% had anxiety symptoms.
How to Help Your Mental Health if You’re a Nurse
Truckers and Mental Health
Truck driving jobs are associated with some of the highest rates of depression. In fact, 16.2% of public and private transportation professionals struggle with depression—the highest rate of any industry.
While truck drivers generally make a decent salary, they’re often under enormous strain from various aspects of their jobs. The social isolation of driving alone, long driving shifts, significant time away from loved ones, disrupted sleep patterns, and pressure to deliver hauls on time contribute to various mental health challenges. In one survey of 300 truckers, researchers found that truck drivers experienced:
- Loneliness: 27.9%
- Depression: 26.9%
- Chronic sleep disturbance: 20.6%
- Anxiety: 14.5%
- Other emotional problems: 13%
Although poor mental health negatively impacts every career, the stakes are particularly high for truck drivers, who must safely commandeer a 40-ton vehicle through traffic and difficult roadways for 40+ hours a week. Add in the stress of witnessing or being involved in crashes, encountering human trafficking at truck stops, and spending hours and hours alone on the road, and you have a recipe for potentially deadly accidents.
How to Help Your Mental Health if You’re a Truck Driver
How Professionals Can Support Their Mental Health
Although some professions are more at risk for mental health struggles due to the nature of the work, nearly every career has some stress associated with it at some point. So, how do you support your mental health at work—no matter what you do for a living?
Here are ways you can maintain good mental health and build health-supporting habits on the job.
Recognize the Signs of Declining Mental Health
Part of staying emotionally well is being able to recognize when your mental health is declining. Stay attuned to signs that your work may be impacting your mental health, such as:
- You’re losing interest in your job
- Your productivity declines
- You dread work every day
- You feel anxious about your workload
- Your work impacts your mood so much that it affects your relationships
- You feel ineffective and useless at work
If you experience any of these symptoms, it’s time to dig deep and figure out what you need to do to start feeling better.
Ask If Your Employer Provides Access to an EAP
Many companies give their employees access to employee assistance programs (EAPs) that offer free and confidential assessments, short-term counseling with licensed therapists, and referrals to experts. EAPs can help employees address various mental and emotional health issues, including grief, stress, substance abuse, and family problems.
Contact a Warmline
Everyone is familiar with hotlines for people in immediate crisis, but a relatively new service—called a warmline—provides mental health support before a crisis sets in. Typically free and staffed by volunteers or employees who have also experienced mental health challenges, warmlines offer early intervention, referrals, and emotional peer support services.
If you notice that you’re feeling more stressed, anxious, or down than usual, but you don’t feel like you need emergency or immediate services, a warmline can help you regain balance and find the help you need. Search for a warmline in your state to begin accessing services.
It doesn’t matter what you do for a career—finding a healthy work-life balance is key to supporting your mental health on every level. Being able to truly disengage from work when you’re enjoying the rest of your life gives your work-related emotions a chance to reset before you head into your next workday.
Rather than thinking about or getting caught up in work 24/7, set boundaries between your home and work life and stick to them.
Engage in Self-Care
Making sure you are taking care of yourself physically can go a long way toward helping you stay emotionally and mentally well. Eating regular, healthy meals (and, yes, this often means packing your own lunch or dinner!), exercising, and getting a solid 7-8 hours of sleep a night help you weather any stress you encounter on the job.
Whether you take 15 minutes to clear your head during a hectic day or two weeks off for a much-deserved vacation, it’s imperative to give yourself time to decompress from all the demands and stressors of work.
No matter how busy you feel, you can always find a few minutes to step away, take a few deep breaths, and recenter. And then, when your schedule allows, book some time off for a true getaway.
It may seem odd that you have to practice relaxing, but finding ways to relax is essential to your well-being when you’re in a job that puts you at risk for mental health challenges.
Fortunately, you have countless options when it comes to finding a relaxation technique that fits with your job schedule and personal preferences—all of which will benefit your mental health. Mindfulness meditation, for example, has been shown to reduce cortisol levels (and, therefore, stress). Other techniques include yoga, deep breathing, visualization, aromatherapy, and biofeedback.
Getting Help for Mental Illness
If not dealt with, poor mental health can deteriorate into mental illness that needs professional intervention and support. But how can you tell the two apart?
In general, the difference lies in how severely mental health issues impact a person’s overall well-being and ability to function socially, at work, and at school. Mental illness negatively impacts many aspects of life significantly, while poor mental health might only affect certain situations or be short-term and less detrimental.
Consider contacting a mental health professional if you’re experiencing the below signs of mental illness:
- Dramatic sleep or appetite changes
- Rapid or dramatic shifts in depressed feelings or emotions
- Social withdrawal and loss of interest in activities
- Serious problems with memory or logical thought
- A feeling of disconnection from oneself or surroundings
- Severe risk-taking behavior
- Sudden overwhelming fear
- Extreme difficulty concentrating
If you have thoughts of harming yourself or others, contact 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
Resources for Supporting Mental Health at Work
Mental Health America Online Screening
This online mental health test can help you determine if you’re experiencing a mental health condition such as anxiety or depression.
Center for Workplace Mental Health ICU Program
The ICU awareness campaign helps employers create a workplace culture that supports emotional health. Resources include videos, implementation guides, questionnaires, and more.
The science-backed program provides tools and programs to help you overcome stress and negative thoughts.
Headspace for Work
Similar to the original Headspace app, the workplace version provides mindfulness and meditation solutions for the workplace. Employees get access to hundreds of exercises and meditations.
The award-winning podcast provides tips, tools, and practices that help individuals cope with anxiety, PTSD, stress, and panic attacks.
Your Mental Health and Your Work
The Anxious Achievers created this podcast to discuss mental health at work.
Mental Health First Aid at Work
This program provides employees with the skills and knowledge to help themselves and colleagues experiencing mental health problems.