Millions of people worldwide suffer from depression, anxiety and other mental health difficulties - many of those people are, of course, wanting and needing to be in the workforce and many make excellent employees, who at times may need a bit extra understanding and help.

Dr Helena Cooper-Thomas, professor of organisational behaviour at AUT, says: "For people with mental health problems, work can be a useful place to find meaning, through working on tasks that feel important such as helping customers or solving problems, and also to find connection, through social interactions with colleagues.

"On the whole work is good for mental health. However there are exceptions, and in particular where factors in the work environment are a source of stress that an employee does not feel they have the resources to cope with - for example abusive supervision or bullying, or high work demands such as an excessive amount of work or unreasonably high expectations," she says.

"If there's an individual with depression who is having a bad time, the important consideration is to know if the problem is about work or is it more general? If it's about work, maybe the job is repetitive or they find it emotionally taxing. Maybe they need a break from that.


"As an employer you may want to think of what tasks they can do that don't have an impact on their mental health. It's important too for the employee to consider whether it's about the work design.

"If it's about their life in general - on the whole for those people it's important to help them come to work, make them feel welcome, try make sure it is a good environment for them so they feel supported. It's important also that they feel they are making a meaningful contribution, that there's a purpose to what they're doing. Connection to colleagues is vital too. So it's about trying to remove potential barriers and make work a safe and enjoyable place."

Cooper-Thomas says if there are people at work who are mean to you, who say sarcastic things and comment on how you're dressed, you probably don't want to go into that building, particularly if you're depressed.

She says of course mental illness and struggle varies from individual to individual.

"As long as the triggers for depression aren't coming from the workplace, most people are better off at work than unemployed. Unemployment is related to poor mental health, especially if you are depressed and stop working, getting back into the workplace can be really hard.

"Applying for jobs means you will face a lot of rejection - and that can be really difficult if you're coming out of depression.

"Also, if you've been to work you usually can see yourself as having been productive, if you're unemployed it's harder to see that at the end of the day.

"Of course if the problem is something like workplace bullying, then changing small aspects of work is not going to help address this," she says.

"Although the mental health angle is important as those people are the most vulnerable - it's important for all of us to consider how we can bring our best selves to work. Know what's relaxing and refreshing for you - it's important to manage your work time so you stay mentally healthy. This helps with connecting with your whanau and the rest of your life."

Interestingly, Cooper-Thomas says there was a long-term longitudinal study with Finnish employees that found that people who had a higher level of education seemed to experience less burnout. Using a variety of skills at work also helped to reduce the risk of burnout. "For example a journalist gets to research, talk to people, write, talk to colleagues - there are a lot of skills that you use. For someone in, say, customer service there may not be so much skill variety - you may be solving the same problems over and over again.

"Beginning your career with a high level of education helps - I suspect that ongoing education will help as well. If you can negotiate a job that gives you variety, that's going to be good.

This isn't just for people with mental illness - it's something that helps most people."

She says that managing your daily schedule is also important. A study looked at break activities: relaxation (stretching, walking around the office, a bit of daydreaming); snacking or drinking ; contact with others (chatting to a colleague, texting a friend); and cognitive activities (going online and reading the news, banking etc.)

Only two of these activities seemed to offset the negative effects of high job demands - relaxation activities and social activities. "That's quite interesting because we do need to work quite intensively. It's good to know for yourself when you do take a break, what helps to give you a lift."

Cooper-Thomas points out that with the streamlining of the workforce and layers been taken out of management - we do need to manage ourselves more. "We work best when we're well and happy."

"As far as employers are concerned, if you're a leader in your team, do tell your team if you're leaving early because you need to fetch your child, or you're going on a 10 minute walk to refresh. Leaders need to set the scene to enable people to see to their own wellbeing.

"Bosses should be setting norms around maintaining healthy balance and being role models."

For employers who want to know more about how to support employees with mental health problems, visit Open Minds on It is a Like Minds, Like Mine project equipping managers with the confidence and skills to talk about mental health in the workplace.