How to cope with workplace stress and achieve great mental health
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Mental Health Awareness Week is taking place this week (14-20 May 2018) and this year’s focus is on the important issue of stress. We all deal with stress at some point, particularly at our place of work, but if left unchecked and if we fail to find a way to relieve it, there can be serious mental health repercussions. Knowing that you’re stressed is one thing but knowing how to deal with the issue is another matter entirely. This is why we have put together this very guide dedicated to the issue of stress, to celebrate Mental Health Awareness Week, and hopefully reveal to those in need how they can cope with workplace stress and achieve great mental health in the process.
As mentioned, Mental Health Awareness Week in 2018 is looking to shine a spotlight on stress. Of course, this isn’t the only time of year we should be worried about stress and mental health but having nationally recognised events such as this can be tremendously helpful in encouraging change and spreading awareness. There are many events and programmes taking place during this special week and the Mental Health Foundation – a vital player in the field – has a wonderful breakdown of proceedings, information on how you can get involved, and resources that you can use if you would like to hold your own event to raise awareness.
While stress isn’t a mental health issue itself, it can lead to problems down the road if left unchecked. Stress originally developed in humans as a survival strategy and operates in us all today when under abnormal pressure and when something happens that we can’t control. Stress can occur for a number of reasons, from worrying about family dilemmas, financial woes, and very commonly through high-pressure situations at our places of work. Beyond being a mentally taxing phenomenon, stress can also result in physical symptoms depending on the person, including sleeping issues, a change in appetite, nausea, headaches, and sweating. Stress and the resulting symptoms are connected to certain hormones that affect everything from blood pressure to a person’s heart and perspiration rate.
Stress and work often go hand in glove. When constantly ensconced in high-pressure situations, such as when having to work to strict or unattainable deadlines, stress isn’t unusual to see – no matter if you’re working in an office, on a construction site or working a job in the energy sector.
According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), for the year 2016/17, 526,000 workers in the UK were suffering from work-related stress, depression or anxiety. HSE has also found that 12.5 million working days were lost due to work-related stress, depression, or anxiety, and that there are roughly 1,700 people per 100,000 workers suffering from these afflictions. Such statistics do a pretty good job of not only highlighting the scope of the issue but how businesses are impacted by not having the proper procedures in place for helping staff in need.
Image credit: HSE
We can also analyse at an even deeper level the causes of stress in our society. The HSE reports that, on average, between the years 2009 – 2012, 44% of stress, depression and anxiety is caused by workload, 14% by lack of support, and 8% changes at work. All of which indicates that there are certainly things that can be done in our places of work by ourselves, colleagues, and employers to help improve Britain’s mental health.
Image credit: HSE
More broadly across society, Forth – a group of clinical and digital experts with a passion for healthcare – has conducted a 2018 survey in order to paint a more vivid picture of stress levels across the UK. According to Forth, 85% of UK adults are experiencing stress regularly, and taking it even further, 39% of UK adults admit that they feel too stressed in their day-to-day lives. The survey conducted by Forth has also found that work is the second most common cause of stress behind monetary concerns. All of which illustrates quite clearly the prevalence of the issue at hand.
More fascinating findings from Forth regarding stress in the UK can be found through the following link and via the graphic below:
Image credit: Forth
Mind, a mental health charity that provides advice and support for anyone who is experiencing a mental health problem, has recently conducted a new survey across organisations that are taking place in this year’s Workplace Wellbeing Index and has found some interesting data regarding how the workplace impacts our mental health. Emma Mamo, head of Workplace Wellbeing at Mind explained:
“Mind surveyed nearly 45,000 employees across the 74 employers participating in our second annual Workplace Wellbeing Index, a benchmark of best policy and practice when it comes to mental health at work. We found around 3 in 5 staff said their mental health was good or very good (58 percent), while 13 percent of respondents said that their mental health was currently poor or very poor. Of those who said their mental health was poor, 82 percent said that this was work-related – either due solely to problems at work, or a combination of problems at work and outside of work. So it’s clear that our workplace can have a huge impact on our mental health.”
Of course, dealing with stress once it occurs is important, but the objective has to ultimately be identifying the cause of your personal stress and figuring out how to prevent similar situations in the future. As discussed, stress can occur for any number of reasons, especially in the workplace. But it’s important to take a step back and analyse what is the cause of your anguish. Is it something at work that can be tweaked? Do you need to get better at planning your time? Do you simply work too much? And then there are outside factors to consider; one’s home life can certainly influence your career – it’s not uncommon to bring personal baggage into the workplace.
Identifying the causes of stress is something that a qualified life coach would deem an important first step, and this is what stress management coach and Life Coach Directory member Amanda Green told us:
“There are several ways to cope with work-related stress such as exercise, quality sleep, healthy eating, mindfulness and more. However, it can take more than practical suggestions to overcome high levels of stress that are affecting your health and wellbeing.
“A vital step is to identify what is causing you to feel stressed. Give yourself some time and space to complete the questions below as a starting point. For each circumstance that makes you feel stressed at work, ask yourself these questions:
“If you have more than once circumstance, choose the most impactful one to tackle first. You will know who the right person to speak with is. It might be the appropriate point of contact within your organisation, a coach, or someone you know who has relevant experience or all three.”
Emma Mamo at Mind has also commented on the causes of stress and spoke specifically regarding the presence of stress in the construction industry: “Commonly cited causes of stress and poor mental health at work - such as long working hours, heavy workloads and poor relationships with colleagues - can be commonplace in the construction industry. If you’re based on site, it can be hard to do the things you might do outside work to help keep you mentally healthy, such as taking regular exercise and eating a healthy diet. The physical environment - such as light, noise levels and temperature – also has a massive impact on our wellbeing and these things are much harder to control if you work outside than if you’re based in an office.”
Stress in and of itself is an important issue to contend with, but when left unaddressed and when no steps are taken to reign it in, stress can lead to myriad mental health issues, turning a troubling predicament into something far more serious. One thing to be aware of is that chronic stress can increase the risk of developing anxiety and depression. If you become overwhelmed by stress, not only can this make any existing problems you may be suffering with worse, but failing to manage feelings of stress might cause more dangerous mental health problems like depression and anxiety to rear their heads. Mind says that mental health issues can in turn cause stress to develop when trying to cope with the concomitant problems being faced. As a result, it’s not hard to see how a vicious circle can present itself.
The Wellbeing Project, a global consultancy that is a leader in providing expert advice on well-being across all industries and sectors, spoke to us about the importance of combatting work-related stress and how it is linked to mental health:
“The two concepts are closely interconnected, particularly when you consider how much time the average working adult actually spends ‘at work’. When we experience prolonged or repeated pressure at work, yet don’t feel we have the resources to deal effectively with this, we can experience a sense of being overwhelmed and our stress response is triggered. This can have a detrimental impact on how we think, feel and act, not just in the workplace, but also in our personal life, too. Living in a continual state of ‘stress’ can erode many aspects of our overall wellbeing – physical, mental and emotional – and this can impact our motivation, confidence and general enjoyment of all that life has to offer.”
As mentioned, stress can bring about a host of mental health issues, including anxiety. Anxiety UK, a charity formed in 1970 in order to help those affected by anxiety and stress, knows full well the deep connection between the two issues, especially in the workplace. The charity’s CEO, Nicky Lidbetter, spoke to us in detail about their relation:
“The effects of anxiety and stress are closely linked. Both are compounded by a high level of worry and ‘catastrophizing’ situations. Anxiety and stress both cause physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach issues and trouble sleeping. Both can lead to behavioural changes too, such as feeling irritable and isolated. Some people may feel the urge to self-medicate their stress and anxiety with drugs or alcohol. Some may experience panic attacks that are triggered by the thought of the situation they are worried about.
“Stress is commonly situational and brought on by certain pressures that build in someone’s professional life. It can also occur when an employee feels under-stimulated, such as not having enough work to do or feeling bored. Unlike anxiety, stress itself is not technically a medical condition. Everyone experiences stress at various points in their lives, and a certain level of pressure in the workplace can help motivate and make employees more productive. However, prolonged stress is linked to mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.”
Regarding what people can do when faced with the perils of stress and anxiety, Nicky told us: “Talking to friends and family members about how you’re feeling is a good way to keep your worries in perspective, as well as speaking to a doctor if you feel like stress is having a major impact on you. Many feel that learning about anxiety and how it manifests and affects us is an important tool in managing it long-term.”
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Avoiding the issue of stress and its resulting mental health issues is never a good idea, and this is something that Nicky Lidbetter of Anxiety UK emphasised to us: “Anxiety can lead to avoidance as we go out of our way to escape triggering these stress symptoms, such as calling in sick to work or putting off sending that important email. Ultimately the control we feel from avoiding the problem is only temporary and can make it harder to deal with any issues when it comes to eventually facing our fears. It’s best to find solutions to our stresses quickly rather than waiting until they feel uncontrollable.”
So, what can we do? Once we have realised the importance of combating stress and preventing any escalation towards more severe mental health issues, how do we ensure our working lives are as stress-free as possible? Of course, the workplace can never be wholly without stress but there are a number of things that we can do to make things easier for ourselves.
Talk about it
As detailed below, there are a number of things we can to do to help ourselves and to prevent stress from impacting our lives, but for those that are worried about the issue, the best and first thing to do should be to start a dialogue. Finding someone to talk to is advice that Samaritans – an important organisation that provides a confidential place to turn to for those in need – highly recommends. Speaking to us about the issue of stress in the workplace, a topic that is very important to them, Samaritans advised:
“One of the key things we're encouraging people to do if they are experiencing workplace stress is to talk about it. Sharing anxieties with a colleague, friend or family member and being listened to can make a huge difference to people.
“Obviously, Samaritans is also there for people if they'd like to talk in confidence. We receive a call for help every 6 seconds, responding to more than 5 million contacts annually. Anyone can contact Samaritans any time for free on 116 123. The number is free to call and will not show up on phone bills. Alternatively, people can email email@example.com or go to www.samaritans.org to find details of their local branch where they can talk to a volunteer face to face.”
The Wellbeing Project also understands the importance of talking with others, including experts, when suffering from extreme or prolonged stress: “Each person is individual and if anyone is concerned about how they are feeling over a period of 2-3 weeks or more, we always advise that they consult their GP or a medical professional. Many organisations also offer extensive support through their Employee Assistance Programmes, such as access to confidential helplines and counselling.”
Anxiety UK and Nicky Lidbetter suggest speaking with your employer and escalating the situation if you are worried about the issue: “Have a conversation with your manager about finding a way to manage your level of stress. Focus less on the complaints you may have, and more on proactive solutions. You may need further training or find ways to reprioritise your workload and responsibilities.”
Consult a GP
As The Wellbeing Project importantly touches on above, consulting a GP to help you through stress and related mental health issues is a crucial step. Dr Riccardo Di Cuffa, GP and Managing Director of Your Doctor – a private GP service mostly based out of Wexham and Tring that enables patients to explore all of their health concerns – spoke to us about Your Doctor and how contacting a GP can help those suffering with stress and poor mental health at work:
“If patients are suffering from stress or mental health issues, it often affects them in a number of ways. Poor sleep, poor concentration, increasing anxiety, and mood swings to name a few. These factors will ultimately lead to strain on your relationships and at work. Stress and poor mental health affect your work as it leads to substandard work, missing deadlines, poor communication and can be a risk to your long-term health and it some cases could lead to you putting work colleagues at risk. By contacting a GP, you can start to create a long-term management plan for ongoing treatment and support.
“The first important step is to recognise that you are stressed and that your mental health is affected. Seeking help is one of the first steps that you take on your road to recovery. Your Doctor will help to support you, guide you through any treatment and get you back to wellness. Exercise, good sleep and a healthy, balanced diet as well as reducing stress factors are the vital foundation stones for both physical and mental health.”
Get help from a life coach
Earlier we brought you some words from Life Coach Directory member Amanda Green on identifying the causes of stress. The Life Coach Directory connects individuals with professional life coaches in their communities and utilising such a person can be of great benefit in dealing with stress. We were delighted to hear from the team at Life Coach Directory about how their members can help:
“A life coach can help with stress management by helping the person understand why they're feeling stressed and to help understand how they can manage the pressure by modifying their thoughts. Exploring personal stress levels help individuals identify where they may be overwhelmed, which helps them understand their threshold. A professional life coach can help people understand this threshold and offer pressure-management techniques to practice.”
Participate in workshops
The Wellbeing Project offers workshops designed to help combat the effects of stress, helping individuals to overcome the issues. The Wellbeing Project spoke to us about how helpful these sessions can be: “In our workshops which focus specifically on stress, and how to ‘stress less’, we look to build an understanding of the stress response and what steps you can take to manage this. When someone has experienced prolonged or repeated pressure, they have sometimes also gradually stopped doing the things they enjoy, or the things that make them feel good about themselves.
“This is one of the key take-away actions we encourage in our workshops – building rituals into our daily life to offset pressure and ‘reset’ our perspectives. Something as simple as some deep breathing, a short walk in the fresh air, listening to music or enjoying a conversation with someone who makes us laugh can be enough to reset our system and allow us some vital moments to recalibrate and recharge. We won’t always be able to remove pressure, but we can choose to punctuate our day with positives which help to boost our physical, mental and emotional energy.”
Ensure a healthy work/life balance
Having a thriving career can be a great thing, not only monetarily but in terms of providing structure and drive in our lives outside of the family sphere. But working yourself to the bone is never a good idea, spending more hours than you need to at the office can have a hugely detrimental effect on your mental health. So it’s important to secure a healthy work/life balance to ensure there is more to your world than your career. By taking up hobbies, carving out time to spend with family, and ensuring that your evenings are periods where you can relax and unwind after work are essential. Not only will a more balanced approach to life reduce tension and stress, but it will also help ensure less days are taken off work due to unchecked stress and anxiety.
The team at Forth spoke to us about this very topic and understand the importance of a good work/life balance, noting the role that employers can help play: “Switching off from work these days is increasingly more difficult as technology has eroded work/life boundaries. It is, therefore, more important than ever that employers play an active role in promoting good mental health and setting up measures to help employees manage work-related stress and improve their overall well-being.”
And Nicky from Anxiety UK told us that utilising allocated holiday and enjoying hobbies is a key ingredient in looking after your mental health: “Making sure you have a healthy work/life balance is also important. Sometimes work can leave us feeling burnt out and struggling to switch off from ‘work mode’. It’s important to take time to recharge; use your holiday allowance to recover and reset. If you aren’t able to take time off, participating in your hobbies outside of work will provide a boost to your mental health. Explore your interests and enjoy the company of friends, to remind yourself that you are more than just your job. Establishing boundaries in regards to habits like checking your work email out of hours will enable you to focus on other parts of your life.”
Understand the importance of time management
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In the workplace, it can become difficult to stay on top of tasks, assignments and important deadlines, even when you are efficient at organising your time. So if you are a person that has failed to master time management, stress is something that you can very easily find yourself facing. If you don’t know how to plan your time well, the tasks ahead of you can appear to be daunting and as a result, you will burden yourself with stress that can easily be avoided. If you take the time to organise your working day, make a plan for what needs to be achieved before the day is done, noting down deadlines that need to be met, you can start to see what can feasibly be achieved with your available time. Mastering time management, knowing what to focus on and when, and creating an effective schedule, will help you to become much more proficient at planning ahead, and as a result, will help make managing your stress a much easier task.
There are a number of tools and resources available for those that want to improve their skills in this department. Mind Tools is an extremely helpful online resource that has provided a toolkit for helping individuals in areas such as team management, decision making, and, indeed time management. Areas that that Mind Tools advise focussing on are:
Beyond utilising the advice from resources like Mind Tools, there are also tools like Liquid Planner, a project organiser that can help you to focus on priorities, adapt to change, and visualise your resources. A dynamic project management software like Liquid Planner is designed to help eliminate the workplace stresses previously discussed so could prove to be helpful for you and your colleagues.
Avoid vices like smoking and drinking
Many people resort to various vices as a way of coping with stress but in fact, this can have a detrimental effect. Smoking and drinking, to take two examples, are often viewed as ways of managing stress at work or at home but research shows that these can make matters worse, by increasing feelings of anxiety. Nicotine for instance, creates a feeling of relaxation but only on a temporary basis which can then lead to withdrawal symptoms. Alcohol can be equally dangerous when used as a tool to deal with stress and to reduce anxiety as it can actually make one feel more anxious in the long term and exasperate existing mental health issues.
Those that exercise regularly will be aware of the great help it can provide in alleviating stress. Taking the time after work to partake in some light exercise will not only help take your mind of stressful matters but will help you unwind after a long day. Merely getting some fresh air, perhaps walking home from work, or walking the dog, can prove to be hugely beneficial. Exercise is not something that comes naturally to many people but in the present day, it’s never been more convenient or easy to make time for it. Personal trainers are in great supply and people like At Home Fitness can even come to your home or office. Online personal trainers are now even a commonly used practice. Experts like Scott Laidler can help transform your fitness by helping you to craft a custom training program and meal plan to improve your physical health.
Nicky Lidbetter of Anxiety UK acknowledges the importance of a healthy lifestyle in avoiding stress, suggesting some more options for how to do so: “After a long day at work it will be tempting to grab a quick fast food dinner and fall asleep on the sofa in front of the television, but it’s important to keep to healthy routines and make sure you’re eating right and getting enough exercise. A low-intensity activity like yoga can be done at home and will incorporate some of the breathing exercises we recommend for people experiencing anxiety.”
Advanced breathing techniques
If running or lifting weights isn’t something that you find appealing, there are a number of fantastic alternative options to helping relieve stress, such as yoga, Pilates, meditation, and advanced breathing techniques. Sudarshan Kriya is a powerful rhythmic breathing technique that de-stresses and draws you into a deep state of meditation, and more can be read about the benefits of Sudarshan Kriya over at The Art of Living UK. A representative from The Art of Living UK spoke to us about how they see the issue of stress in the workplace:
“The workplace is faster, more demanding and uncertain than ever before. Add to this the complexity of interpersonal interactions and corporate politics and the workplace can become a source of stress for so many of us. One thinks of changing the situations and people around us to be able to minimise this stress and this is not always possible to achieve. We don’t always control the environment or the colleagues we work with.”
The Art of Living UK suggests that breathing techniques, practices of silence, and introspection can be very beneficial in dealing with stress and as such, told us a little more about how Sudarshan Kriya can help:
“It is very difficult to control the mind with the mind. The people and situations we don’t want to think about are the ones we think about. In fact the harder we try the worst it gets. Remember those nights when you tried hard to fall asleep? However, breath can prove to be an effective tool to manage the mind. We have all probably told someone at some point to just take a few deep breaths to gain control over the situation. Researchers have found that there is a direct link between the breath and the state of mind, and using the right breathing techniques can leave us with a mind that is present, focused and resilient. Sudarshan Kriya (SKY), taught by the Art of Living is a powerful breathing technique that makes use of this correlation. Research has shown that it helps reduce stress, anxiety and depression and improves wellbeing, optimism, mental focus and immunity.”
Think about your life goals
As mentioned previously, stress can be part and parcel of work-life, especially in high-pressure careers, so if you are suffering from stress and know that it is your vocation which is at the root of the issue, it’s important to think seriously about if this is the right job for you. Think about your goals in life, what’s important to you, and if you can feasibly maintain your current position and a healthy mental state. If not, and you’ve realised you could be just as happy doing something with a little less pressure, think seriously about making changes to ensure a healthy future.
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We know the stats, we know how we can help ourselves, but looking after those around you that might be suffering from stress and resulting poor mental health is important too. After all, you’d certainly want the support when the shoe is on the other foot. But what can we do to help our colleagues and employees in handling their stress?
Be aware and spread awareness
First of all, we need to be aware of the issues, know how to identify the signs of stress, and then to spread awareness as much as we can. Get to know your co-workers and employees, this way you can act quickly should you notice a change in their personality or stressful behaviour. Some indicators to be aware of include bad timekeeping, working longer hours, forgetfulness, and a loss of motivation. If you notice behaviour that is out of character, try to be understanding, supportive, and see if you can get to the bottom of what is causing the issue.
Encourage employee friendships
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It has been found that a friendly communal atmosphere at work can really help to combat stress. So it’s certainly recommended that employers encourage employee friendships to create an environment that is a pleasure to work in. Staff kitchens are a great avenue for facilitating this, having a communal area away from desks and computers where colleagues can have a brief chat will help relieve stress and tension from daily working issues. Encouraging after work social events can also be helpful. If staff are looking forward to seeing and spending time with their colleagues, a great difference can be made.
Most importantly of all, be sure to listen and make it known that you are someone who can be approached, a person that can be spoken to about such issues. Often colleagues will offer indications to their stress and anxiety in an indirect manner, so by being aware of what to look out for and listening to what those around you are really saying, you can be in a good position to help and escalate matters if need be. Be understanding and make sure that those struggling feel heard when they do vocalise any problems they are suffering with.
Seek help in creating a mentally healthy workplace
Finally, for employers that really want to help tackle the problem in their particular area of influence, organisations like Mind are a great friend to have. Speaking regarding their efforts in helping places of work, Emma Malmo of Mind says:
“We work with employers of all sizes and across different sectors to help them to create mentally healthy workplaces. This includes putting in place measures to help tackle the causes of work-related stress and poor mental health, promote wellbeing for all staff, and support employees experiencing mental health problems. Small, inexpensive measures such as flexible working hours, generous annual leave, regular catch-ups between staff, and access to Employee Assistance Programmes - confidential support lines – can make a huge difference. Forward-thinking employers such as Morgan Sindall Construction and Infrastructure Limited are taking part in Mind’s Workplace Wellbeing Index this year to identify and celebrate the good work they’re doing and get support to further promote good staff wellbeing.”
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If after considering the above, you would like to get in touch with some organisations that specialise in this field, make sure to take a look at the below outfits. These charities and companies have a wealth of knowledge and are a must for those wanting to secure mental health help for themselves and those around them.
As seen above, Mind is involved in a lot of important work in the area of mental health in the workplace, so becoming involved with this organisation as an employer or reaching out for personal help is highly recommended. For one last example about the important work Mind is conducting, Emma Malmo told us about an initiative that helps address a very serious mental health issue:
“Mind is supporting the Mates in Mind initiative to address mental health and suicide within the construction industry by raising awareness and understanding of the causes and signs of poor mental health. Particularly within traditionally male-dominated sectors such as construction we know that there can be a culture of silence when it comes to discussing mental health. By raising awareness through initiatives like Mates in Mind we hope we can shift attitudes and reach the point where everybody can talk openly about stress and poor mental health at work, and know that if they do, they’ll be met with support and understanding.”
Samaritans, providing some fantastic advice in this guide, is an organisation that is there for people when they most need it, offering emotional support 24 hours a day. With no waiting lists or assessments, Samaritans provides a confidential environment and safe place to turn. An example of the group’s good work in this field is its Wellbeing in the City initiative, which helps City of London employees gain the skills they need to manage their own emotional health, while also looking out for others.
“Samaritans is working with The Lord Mayor’s Appeal to launch a groundbreaking emotional support programme for City workers today. The Wellbeing in the City initiative, which is part of an existing mental health campaign in the Square Mile called This is Me, will focus on listening skills and signs that someone may be struggling. The aim is to help create a happier, healthier city.”
As a part of this important programme, Charles Bowman, Lord Mayor of the City of London, has said: “With workplace stress and anxiety a serious issue, we’re taking practical steps to build a more supportive City through our employees. This will benefit businesses, families and communities, as well as having a real impact on those who need help. It will not only change lives, it has the potential to save lives too.”
Anxiety UK is a charity run by those with experience of living with anxiety and stress with support from a high-profile medical advisory team. Anxiety UK conducts important work in offering relief and support those living with anxiety. If you have been diagnosed or think that you might have an anxiety-related condition, visit the ‘Get Help’ section of the website.
Nicky Lidbetter, the CEO of Anxiety UK, recommends using the organisation’s therapy services as well as consulting your GP: “To manage stress in the long-term, you may find it beneficial to speak with a therapist to talk through your concerns and put in place some strategies for coping and managing your anxiety. Something like CBT (cognitive-behavioural therapy) can be excellent for working out solutions and learning some skills to keep on top of your mental health, and can be accessed via your GP or Anxiety UK therapy services.”
Citizens Advice provides free and independent advice for those dealing with a number of problems, helping you to get the help you need. The Citizens Advice website also hosts information and guidance on how to tackle certain problems at work, helping you to know your rights and the responsibilities of your employer in case you feel that mental health issues aren’t being properly addressed at work.