How to Create a Workplace Culture that Supports Mental Health

4th March 2024
 minute read

Table of contents


The culture of a workplace can have a big effect on employee wellbeing. It can also impact productivity, recruitment and retention. By adopting the key principles of a positive workplace culture — and implementing them strategically — leaders and HR professionals can help to shape a healthier and more successful organisation.

What is workplace culture?

Nowadays, the workplace is more than just a space to complete tasks and earn a living — it is a significant part of our daily lives. For this reason, the culture of the workplace can profoundly impact our mental health and wellbeing. 

A positive workplace culture uplifts, whereas a negative one can lead to stress, anxiety, and even long-term mental health issues. So how can we foster a working environment that promotes rather than undermines mental health? A good starting point is to define what workplace culture actually is. 

Workplace culture encompasses the environment, values, beliefs and practices that collectively shape the experiences of those within an organisation. It's the undercurrent that influences how employees interact, solve problems and manage stress. It impacts our daily experiences and influences our feelings of safety, belonging and motivation. 

The benefits of a healthy and positive workplace culture

When a workplace promotes openness, respect and collaboration, it can bolster mental health and act as a buffer against stress. Conversely, a negative culture marked by high stress, competition and poor communication can be a source of it, impacting everything from job satisfaction to personal wellbeing. 

Workplace culture can also affect employee recruitment and retention. For instance, Workbuzz’s 2022 State of Employee Engagement Report found that 45% of UK employees and business leaders rank “a great culture” as the most important factor when looking for a job.

The impact of negative workplace culture on mental health

The consequences of a toxic workplace are far-reaching, affecting more than just job performance. Employees immersed in such environments may experience heightened levels of:

  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Burnout
  • Low self-esteem
  • Physical health issues
  • Addiction and other unhealthy coping mechanisms

From a trauma-informed perspective, understanding how workplace culture affects mental health involves recognising that every individual brings their own history and vulnerabilities into the work environment, which can include past traumas. These don’t have to be dramatically large traumatic events — although they might be — but are often repeated experiences of being ignored, invalidated, criticised, shamed or discriminated against growing up. 

Toxic work environments can trigger past traumas and/or contribute to the development of new mental health challenges. 

Principles for a positive workplace culture

A trauma-informed approach to workplace culture acknowledges the widespread impact of traumatic experiences. This approach seeks to create environments that are safe, supportive, and conducive to healing and resilience. Creating a positive workplace culture hinges on several key principles:

  • Respect and inclusivity: ensuring every employee feels valued and included, regardless of their role or background.
  • Support and recognition: providing support for mental health issues and recognising contributions, big and small.
  • Leadership: leadership should model the values of empathy, transparency and open communication. Emotional intelligence in leaders is key.

These are some of the cultural factors that can impact someone’s wellbeing at work:

Safety and security

A trauma-informed workplace prioritises physical and psychological safety. In environments where physical or psychological safety is compromised — whether through hazardous conditions, high-stress situations, lack of security, or feeling insecure, threatened, or under constant surveillance — employees may experience heightened anxiety and fear. 

These fear responses will be heightened for individuals with a history of trauma. This can trigger past traumas to be re-experienced, leading to friction in working relationships, decreased productivity, increased absenteeism, and a higher risk of mental health issues.

Trust and transparency

Trust and transparency are foundational to a trauma-informed culture. Workplaces that lack clear communication, hide information, or foster suspicion can exacerbate feelings of insecurity and distrust. This can particularly affect those with trauma related to betrayal or abandonment. And it can result in employees feeling isolated, undervalued, and reluctant to seek help when needed, further impacting their mental health.

Empowerment and autonomy

Empowering employees by giving them control over their tasks and decisions can counteract feelings of helplessness and powerlessness, common in trauma survivors. A workplace culture that micromanages or restricts employee autonomy can retrigger these trauma responses, leading to disengagement, dissatisfaction and mental health struggles.

Connection and belonging

A positive workplace culture fosters connection, belonging, and inclusivity — which are important for all of us. Traumatic experiences can often leave individuals feeling isolated and disconnected. Work environments that are competitive, exclusionary, or indifferent to diversity and inclusion can intensify these feelings, exacerbating mental health issues like depression and anxiety. Lumo’s article on How to Create Psychological Safety in Diverse Teams offers further guidance.

Recognition and validation

While acknowledging and validating employees' experiences and contributions is good practice generally, it is crucial in a trauma-informed workplace. Cultures that ignore or minimise employees' achievements and challenges can invalidate their experiences, mirroring the invalidation a trauma survivor might have faced in the past. This can impact self-esteem, increase stress levels, and contribute to mental health problems.

Adaptability and flexibility

Trauma-informed workplaces understand the need for adaptability and flexibility, recognising that rigid structures can be particularly challenging for individuals with trauma histories. A lack of flexibility around work hours, leaves of absence, or workloads can exacerbate stress and anxiety, making it difficult for individuals to manage their mental health effectively.

Support and resources

Providing access to mental health resources and support is a key aspect of a trauma-informed workplace culture. Normalising the concept that mental health is something that everybody needs to look after, just like physical health, can help. Environments that lack these supports or stigmatise mental health issues can deter individuals from seeking the help they need, potentially causing their wellbeing to deteriorate into mental health challenges.

Strategies for implementing positive change

At an individual level:

  • Self-care: encourage employees to prioritise their mental health through self-care practices and setting boundaries.
  • Self-awareness: cultivate a culture where individuals are encouraged to attend to their emotions and the emotions of those around them.
  • Mental health resources: advocate for access to mental health resources. These could include therapy services, online resources that employees can use to build skills, or mental health days they can take to recalibrate emotionally — and avoid longer absences in the future — when necessary.

At an organisational level:

  • Open communication: cultivate an environment where feedback is encouraged, and concerns are addressed promptly and effectively.
  • Work-life balance: implement policies that support a healthy work-life balance, including flexible working hours and the option to work remotely.
  • Mental health awareness: invest in training for managers and staff on recognising and supporting mental health issues within the team. Incorporate understanding from various psychological models and therapeutic approaches into this.

The role of psychological models in enhancing workplace culture

Drawing upon different psychological models can offer deep insights into the complexities of human behaviour and interaction. These models provide tools for understanding stress responses, improving communication, and fostering resilience, which are vital for a healthy workplace culture. 

For instance, Schema Therapy can help identify and address unhelpful patterns of thinking and behaviour within teams, while Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) promotes psychological flexibility, encouraging individuals to embrace their thoughts and feelings rather than fighting or feeling guilty for them. 

Compassion-Focused Therapy (CFT) can help individuals and teams to understand and correct imbalances in emotion regulatory systems. This might include reducing the constant drive to achieve at the expense of wellbeing, as well as promoting soothing and self-care practices.

The impact of workplace culture on mental health cannot be overstated. It is the foundation on which the wellbeing of employees is built. By embracing the principles of respect, support, and understanding, and implementing strategic changes, we can create environments where individuals not only survive but thrive.

How to Create a Workplace Culture that Supports Mental Health
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