Productivity and mental health may not seem like obvious partners, but the truth is they work hand-in-hand. For many of us at work, as business owners or employees, there is pressure to not only stay productive but to accomplish more and more.

And, while many of us are working from home, maintaining productivity can be difficult due to the state of our mental health. Stress can easily cause anyone's mental health to deteriorate without adequate self-care.

Let's face it. There will always be days when you just can't be as productive as you might have to be. There will be days when you don't know how to stay focused on accomplishing tasks. So it's good to check in with yourself every now and again about whether you're doing everything you can to minimise stress and increase productivity.

These higher levels of stress and lower productivity can occur for you personally as a sole trader or small business owner, or for the staff or contractors that you rely on. Work-related stress is a major cause of occupational ill health, poor productivity and human error.

Why is mental health in the workplace so important

Many business owners know that mental health in the workplace is important, but don't necessarily know what to do about it or where to start to find out more. Even so, workplaces play an important and active role in maintaining people's mental health and wellbeing. Further, every business has a legal and moral responsibility to provide a safe and fair workplace for its people. It even makes good business sense.

Creating a mentally healthy workplace has many benefits for both employers and employees. A well-designed workplace should support individual mental health and happiness. The flow-on effects - reduced absenteeism, increased employee engagement and group productivity - are certainly all things any employer would want to promote. 

It's simple: healthy people are more productive - not only because they, and you, can produce more, but that production occurs more successfully.

What is mental health, exactly?

The term 'mental health' is often used as a shorthand substitute for adverse mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety. But the World Health Organisation actually defines mental health as a state of wellbeing in which every individual:

  • realises his or her own potential
  • can cope with the normal stresses of life
  • can work productively and fruitfully
  • is able to make a contribution to his or her community.

One way to explain the distinction is to imagine mental health as a spectrum, with everyone varying over their lifetime - for some, on a daily basis. The mental health spectrum runs from positive, healthy functioning at one end, through to severe symptoms or conditions that can be disabling on the other.

Essentially, good mental health is about being cognitively, emotionally, and socially healthy in the way you think, feel and develop relationships. It is not merely the absence of a defined condition.

What this means is that even if someone, or you, is not experiencing a defined mental health condition, it doesn't necessarily mean that your mental health is optimal. Likewise, it's possible to be diagnosed with a mental health condition while feeling well and productive at work. This complexity is why many people initially misunderstand what is meant by 'mental health' and why regular check-ins to consider your mental health are valuable even if you feel like things are going well enough.

Tips to improve mental health

So, how do you go about improving your own mental health and supporting your staff in managing their own? Here are six steps to personally consider:

1. Start your day with exercise

More than an espresso double shot, the best way to clear a sleepy head and get your blood flowing is exercise. You don't have to visit the gym, go boxing or lift weights - any physical activity that will get your heart rate up can help. You can walk around at home, run up and down the stairs three times, do a 20-minute aerobics session (lots of aerobic videos available online) or just walk your pet to the park. Physical activity at the start of the day really can do wonders in helping improve your concentration and attention over the hours to come.

2. Get back to nature

You might be surprised to find out how much of a positive effect there is in being around plant life, both mentally and physically. Many studies point to the ability of plants to boost our mood and productivity, lessen stress and fatigue, clean our air and generate a feeling of overall well being. So, consider adding plants to your immediate working environment and aim to take your breaks with some nature around you.

3. Stop sitting

Turns out that generally speaking, sitting is bad for us. The Yale School of Medicine has found that sitting is linked to numerous medical conditions, such as lower back pain, heart disease, obesity and more. Poor physical health in no way improves our ability to be productive or manage self-care to improve mental health. Therefore, to combat the habit of incessantly sitting, consider investing in a standing desk or, better yet, make your own. If you're still at a loss, practice setting timers to remind yourself to regularly stand up, move and take a walk.

4. Drink water

Always drink water. Simple, right? Perhaps not. It's easy to forget to drink water when you're working non-stop or throwing back espresso shots. Dehydration can be incredibly debilitating physically as well as cognitively. As reported by the British Nutrition Foundation, even mild dehydration can seriously hinder your mental performance in memory, attention, concentration and reaction time.

5. Know when to ignore your inbox

You've heard the rumour and it's true: checking your email less often leads to more productivity. According to the Harvard Business Review, over-checking email wastes 21 minutes per day (at a minimum). Although this clearly slows down your productivity, over-checking your inbox can do other kinds of harm. Excessive use of email can create a culture and feeling of being 'on' non-stop. Furthermore, the constant ding of notifications and the replacement of face-to-face time can cause feelings of being isolated and drowning in work. Anyone who has suffered those already knows how much they can contribute to stress levels.

6. Maintain a healthy lifestyle

Simply put, the way you treat your body has a direct effect on the quality of your mental process and your overall productivity. With a healthier lifestyle, your ability to focus and create will improve and you'll be more efficient in accomplishing tasks. By getting enough sleep, eating healthy food and avoiding vices such as drinking alcohol, smoking and doing drugs, you can keep your mind and body healthy and in good condition for both work and home life.

Mental health for the win

Following and promoting this list of actions to undertake to improve mental health can be a game-changer. In the workplace, you can be a role model for your staff and colleagues. By talking about mental health and making positive steps to stay on top of any issues, you instill a culture where these topics are safe to explore, engage with and address.

It is high time mental health stopped being considered a taboo subject for discussion in the workplace. Bringing it into the light takes leadership - and you're your business's leader. It's up to you. So be open, be honest and take action. You may be surprised at the impact you can have on those around you.