Documenting three good things could improve your mental well-being in work

September 4, 2017 by Kate Isherwood, The Conversation
Stressful day. Credit: Kuprevich/Shutterstock

The UK is facing a mental health crisis in the workplace. Around 4.6m working people – 64% of the British population – suffer from either depression or anxiety. In total, 25% of all EU citizens will report a mental health disorder at some point in their lives.

People who have been diagnosed with a disorder, or show symptoms of one, and remain in work are known as "presentees". These individuals may have trouble concentrating, memory problems, find it difficult to make decisions, and have a loss of interest in their work. They underperform and are non-productive.

Medication and/or talking therapies – like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) – have been shown to be highly effective in treating common mental disorders. But these interventions are aimed at those who are already signed off sick due to a mental health diagnosis ("absentees").

Stress and pressure in work is not the same as at home, so those with who are still in work need a different kind of help. In the workplace, employees can be subject to tight deadlines and heavy workloads, and may potentially be in an environment where there is a stigma against talking about mental health.

Reframing mental health

So what can be done for those working people who have depression or anxiety? Research has found that simply treating a person before they are signed off sick will not only protect their mental health, but can actually result in increased workplace productivity and well-being. For example, when a group of Australian researchers introduced CBT sessions into a British insurance company, they found it greatly improved workplace mental health.

In the study, seven three-hour sessions of traditional CBT were offered to all staff in the company. The sessions focused on thinking errors, goal-setting, and time management techniques. At follow up appointments seven weeks and three months after the sessions had ended, the participants showed significant improvements in things like job satisfaction, self-esteem, and productivity. They had also improved on clinical measures of things like attributional style – how a person explains life events to themselves – psychological well-being and psychological distress.

However, there have been concerns that using the types of treatment typically given to people outside work may be distracting to an employee. The worry is that they don't directly contribute to company targets, instead offering more indirect benefits that can't be as easily measured.

But there is an alternative that doesn't take up too much company time and can still have a huge impact on employees' mental health: .

Three good things

In the last 15 years, psychological study has moved away from the traditional disease model, which looks at treating dysfunction or mental ill-health, towards the study of strengths that enable people to thrive. This research focuses on helping people to identify and utilise their own strengths, and encourages their ability to flourish.

Positive psychology concentrates on the development of "light-touch" methods – that take no longer than ten to 15 minutes a day – to encourage people to stop, reflect and reinterpret their day.

Something as easy as writing down three good things that have happened to a person in one day is proven to have a significant impact on happiness levels. In addition, previous research has also found that learning how to identify and use one's own strengths, or express gratitude for even the littlest things, can also reduce depression and increase happiness too.

This is effective in the workplace as well: when a positive work-reflection diary system was put in place at a Swiss organisation, researchers found that it had a significant impact on employee well-being. Writing in diaries decreased employees' depressive moods at bedtime, which had an effect on their mood the next morning. The staff members were going to work happier, simply by thinking positively about how their shift had gone the day before.

Added to this, when another group of researchers asked employees of an outpatient family clinic to spend ten minutes every day completing an online survey, stress levels, mental and physical complaints all significantly decreased. The questionnaire asked the participants to reflect on their day, and write about large or small, personal or work-related events that had gone well and explain why they had occurred – similar to the three good things diary. The staff members reported events like a nice coffee with a co-worker, a positive meeting, or just the fact that it was Friday. It showed that even small events can have a huge impact on happiness.

The simple practice of positive reflection creates a real shift in what people think about, and can change how they perceive their work lives. And, as an added benefit, if people share positive events with others, it can boost social bonds and friendships, further reducing workplace stress.

Reframing the day can also create a feedback loop that enhances its impact. When we are happier, we are more productive; when we are more productive, we reach our goals, which helps us to focus on our achievements more, which in turn makes us happier.

Explore further: What is positive psychology, and how can you use it for yourself?

Related Stories

What is positive psychology, and how can you use it for yourself?

May 22, 2017
Many people have probably heard the term "positive psychology", but know little about what it means in practice. Positive psychology aims to find ways to make life better for people, and ensure they're the most mentally healthy ...

Negativity, be gone—new online tool can retrain your brain

July 27, 2017
Anxiety and depression can have devastating effects on people's lives. In some cases, the mental disorders lead to isolation, poverty and poor physical health, things that often cascade to future generations.

The five-minute exercises that could make you happier at work

January 28, 2015
A new study by academics from the School of Psychology and Exercise Science at Murdoch University and Ludwig Maximilian University could help to make you happier at work.

Exercise at work also has mental health benefits

October 7, 2016
Spending too many hours sitting at your desk or inside an office is known to be unhealthy, so workplace health programs have been designed to improve employees' physical health by encouraging exercise and activity. Now researchers ...

Go to work to improve your mental health

May 19, 2014
(Medical Xpress)—Ask most people where they should learn about good mental health and they would be pretty unlikely to say their workplace. For many of us, the workplace is where we are the most stressed, anxious or depressed.

Job stress might make you sick, study says

July 30, 2015
(HealthDay)—High levels of job stress may increase the risk of sick leave due to mental health disorders, a new study suggests.

Recommended for you

Success is not just how you play your cards, but how you play your opponents

June 15, 2018
In high-stakes environments, success is not just about playing your cards right, but also playing your opponents right.

Poker has a 'tell' about strategic thinkers

June 15, 2018
In competitive environments, success is not just about playing your cards right, but also playing your opponents right.

Early birds less prone to depression

June 15, 2018
Middle-to-older aged women who are naturally early to bed and early to rise are significantly less likely to develop depression, according to a new study by researchers at University of Colorado Boulder and the Channing Division ...

Risk of burnout can be estimated by analysing saliva samples

June 15, 2018
According to calculations from the World Health Organisation, depression occupies first place in the global "disease burden" and, by 2030, experts estimate that there will be three mental illnesses in the Top 5: depression, ...

EEG can determine if a depressed patient will do better on antidepressants or talk therapy

June 14, 2018
People react differently to positive events in their lives. For some, a small reward can have a large impact on their mood, while others may get a smaller emotional boost from the same positive event.

Mindfulness meditation and relaxation response have different effects on brain function

June 13, 2018
A variety of meditation-based programs have been developed in recent years to reduce stress and medical symptoms and to promote wellness. One lingering question is to what extent these programs are similar or different. In ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.