Improving mental health in the workplace: Balancing career development & wellbeing for your team

Whatever field you’re working in, most of your staff will have the ambition to climb the ranks and succeed. But when greatness comes at a personal cost, it can end up feeling like the hard work was in vain. What’s the value of career development if you have to sacrifice your mental health in pursuit of it?

The reality is that encouraging your staff to grow and bear new responsibilities without causing undue stress or anxiety is a fine balancing act. But it is possible — and necessary.

When mental health in the workplace is compromised, it can lead to countless detrimental effects for both your staffing body and business, including poor morale, high staff turnover, and low growth. On the other hand, a healthy climate for corporate progression can cultivate a workforce that is happy, productive, and satisfied at work. This is why it’s so important to focus on improving mental health in the workplace — a topic that we’ve covered at length in this previous blog post.

But how do you walk the tightrope of mental health and career development? This adds yet another complication to the already challenging job of improving mental health at work.

Here, we’ll explore some of the associations between mental health and career development, how healthy progression can benefit your workforce, and some top strategies for balancing the two to consider.

The prevalence of mental health issues in the workplace

Throughout our time providing wellbeing coaching and support to businesses, we’ve seen firsthand the effects of poor mental health at work. But mental health isn’t just limited to those visible, clearly defined illnesses that can be neatly summed up with a category and a diagnosis.

In fact, mental health presents itself in the workplace as a spectrum. It’s every single thought, emotion, and situation that we experience — the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Conversations surrounding mental health at work have been ongoing for decades — but now more than ever, destigmatisation efforts have pushed them to the forefront of the corporate conversation. Many organisations, especially in high-stress sectors like law, finance and healthcare, have found themselves at an impasse — finally needing to have the conversations at work that previously were being held behind closed doors.

This is thanks in no small part to the prevalence of mental health problems in the workplace — with around 84% of workers experiencing at least one mental health-related challenge in the past year.

We help businesses support their staff’s wellbeing, but we aren’t mental health service providers. If you or somebody you know is experiencing a mental health challenge that is affecting their day-to-day life, we recommend that you reach out to one of the following free services:

Samaritans — Confidential support for people experiencing feelings of distress or despair, with a 24/7 helpline at 116 123.

Mind — Information and resource provider for people living with mental health challenges.

Anxiety UK — Charity providing support for people living with anxiety conditions, with a weekday helpline at 03444 775 774.

The link between career development and mental health

So, it’s in everybody’s best interest to prioritise mental health provisions. The difficult thing is, there’s a school of thought that improving your mental health at work always comes at the cost of improving your career — and vice versa. This is especially common among Gen-Z and millennial staff who are likely to be influenced by social media.

All day, every day, we’re exposed to showy lifestyles over Instagram, X and TikTok, highlighting the glamour and grit of new-age ‘hustle culture’. The more that this kind of content crops up on our timelines, the more we’re likely to fall into the trap of thinking our own best just isn’t good enough.

And so, the irrational cycle of negative self-thought persists — all too often accompanied by overworking, sleepless nights, and detachment from our established support networks. All in, these factors contribute to feelings of depression, anxiety, and burnout.

But there is hope.

The most effective and responsible leaders in the workplace are helping to break the cycle by cultivating healthy working environments and putting systems in place for structured career progression. This instils in staff the belief that improving their mental health in the workplace can coexist with improving their careers — largely because they will come to experience it for themselves.

But before we explore strategies for improving mental health and career development, let’s try to untangle some of the links between the two. This is how unrealistic career expectations and excessive pressure can contribute to challenges for mental and emotional health.

Overworking leads to stress

As staff members work to progress in their role, many work long and excessive hours. This kind of overworking tends to foster feelings of stress and anxiety, dampening motivation across the board.

Couple this with the modern expectation to be ‘always on’ — exacerbated by new remote and hybrid working schedules — and many companies are seeing record levels of staff burnout. Between late-night email checks, perpetual on-call responsibilities, and the blending of work and home life, many workers struggle to establish a healthy work-life balance, leading to mental health difficulties.

Poor working relationships

As employees look to climb the corporate ladder, many witness the erosion of their existing working relationships — particularly with colleagues who aren’t afforded the same opportunities for growth. This is because as power dynamics shift, other staff members may harbour feelings of resentment, inadequacy, or envy.

Unfortunately, this can contribute to the breakdown of crucial support networks within the workplace, creating a detrimental cycle that takes a toll on the mental health of both the advancing and non-advancing employees.

Similarly, seeking opportunities outside of the company can strain internal relations, especially if attention is diverted and other team members are left to shoulder additional responsibilities.

The culture of not sharing

When an employee goes after a promotion, they tend to take on additional responsibilities. Then, in an effort to appear worthy of these responsibilities in the eyes of a manager or company director, many choose to close off from sharing their concerns and personal problems at work.

This reluctance to discuss problems hampers effective communication and takes a toll on mental health. The fear of being perceived as ‘vulnerable’ or ‘unprepared’ undermines the creation of a supportive work environment — and prevents the resolution of issues that could be solved with the help of a colleague.

The benefit of career development on employee wellbeing

Progressing in their chosen career can certainly improve an employee’s mental health. Beyond the obvious benefits that come with a full-time job, such as a source of income, a sense of identity, and socialisation with like-minded peers, career development can help sustain long-term wellbeing.

But if your employees aren’t reaping the benefits of career growth with you, they’re likely to look elsewhere. Within many organisations, the unfortunate reality is that even if career development opportunities are present, they might be accompanied by some of the common pitfalls of progression.

For example, Ipsos reports that 79% of managers feel overworked or stressed by their position — which is hardly conducive to good mental health for these individuals or their reports. It certainly doesn’t have to be this way, however.

Instead, healthy career development can go a long way to improving the mental health and wellbeing of your staffing body. These are some of the top benefits:

  • Enhanced job satisfaction — Engaging in a healthy career progression leads to increased job satisfaction and engagement. Employees who feel supported in their growth are more likely to find purpose in their roles, contributing to a positive work environment and sustained enthusiasm for their work.
  • New skill acquisition — An action plan for career development often involves access to training programmes, workshops, and skill-building opportunities. This way, employees can acquire new skills and expertise, making them more valuable assets to their organisations.
  • Greater career stability — Employees who actively pursue personal and professional development opportunities are better positioned for long-term career stability and advancement. This makes individuals more competitive in the job market and increases their chances of securing promotions or exploring new career paths with their employer.

Strategies for balancing career development and mental health

To create a working environment that fosters the benefits of career development without risking consequences for mental health, you need to treat both provisions with care.

But what methods can be used to strike this all-important balance?

To develop a plan for your own organisation, we encourage you to collaborate with other senior leaders within the business — consider department heads, HR, founders — and reflect on your current practices. What structures are currently in place to facilitate progression? How does your existing mental health resource fulfil its aims?

Implementing new programmes can be challenging, but the logical first step is to identify any existing blind spots within the business. Then, you can look to establish new policies and practices for improving mental health and careers within your organisation.

Here are some of the best practices that have worked well for our partners.

Improve staff work-life balance

One key strategy for businesses to balance career development and mental health is to prioritise a work-life balance. Encouraging flexible work hours, promoting reasonable workload expectations, and discouraging the aforementioned culture of being ‘always on’ outside of office hours can help employees manage their professional and personal lives more effectively.

Cultivating a healthy work-life balance is essential for restoring a sense of engagement at work, providing ample time for rest, relaxation, and physical activities. By nurturing this balance, employers can support staff vying to grow their careers while safeguarding their wellbeing.

Build action plans for career development

Businesses can foster a healthy balance between career development and mental health by implementing structured career development programmes. Ideally, these should include personalised action plans for employees that integrate both their personal and professional development.

These might involve regular performance reviews, goal-setting sessions, and identifying opportunities for skill enhancement. By collaboratively establishing clear career paths and providing the necessary resources for staff to healthily pursue them, businesses empower their employees and reduce the stress associated with career progression.

Promote mental health awareness

One strategy that has received significant attention in recent years — and deservedly so — is for businesses to actively promote mental health awareness. This might include offering wellbeing coaching services, organising workshops on stress management and resilience, or introducing regular sessions for conversations about mental health.

This way, businesses can grow a positive workplace culture where individuals feel valued and supported in both their personal and professional journeys.

Partner with Sanctus Coaching to support staff career development and mental wellbeing

Businesses struggling to establish a healthy balance between career development and mental health may benefit from dedicated wellbeing coaching. At Sanctus Coaching, we provide personalised guidance to employees on managing stress, setting realistic goals, and navigating the complexities of work-life integration.

Our wellbeing coaches take an integrative approach to employee support, working towards both professional and personal goals in collaboration with your staff. With 1-to-1 coaching, your team can discuss valuable insights, tools, and coping strategies that foster resilience, as well as ongoing career growth opportunities or concerns.

This is how we equip businesses to strike the balance between mental health and career development — creating a culture that contributes to increased job satisfaction, reduced burnout, and improved overall organisational performance.
Read more about the work we’ve done or talk to one of our coaches today to start putting the people who power your business first.