About mental health

Expert reviewer, Moya Kerr, Cognitive Behavioural Therapist at Bupa
Next review due September 2023

Here, we give an overview of mental health. What it is, how to recognise a mental health problem and ways to look after your mental health at work.

man on a laptop

What is mental health?

When we think about mental health, we often think about mental health problems. We think of symptoms like low mood and conditions such as depression or anxiety.

In fact, everyone has mental health. You will have times when your mental health is good – and times when it’s not as good – just like your physical health. Mental health is our individual state of wellbeing, defined by our ability to cope with normal, day to day life.

Sometimes you’ll experience low mood, fear, anxiety or confusion. These feelings are part of everyday life and don’t necessarily mean you have a mental health problem.

What is a mental health problem?

Sometimes your moods, thoughts, experiences or reactions to certain situations may feel difficult for a long period of time. They affect your daily life, the choices you make and how you want to live. This type of thinking and behaviour may indicate a mental health problem.

At any one time, one in six people will be experiencing a common mental health problem. So, it’s likely be part of almost every workforce.

Diagnosed mental health problems

We’ve all heard of diagnosed mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety.

Having a diagnosis doesn’t necessarily mean that your mental health is poor all the time. You could have a diagnosis of a mental health condition but be able to manage it and function well a lot of the time.

Equally, you might not have a particular diagnosis, but find things very difficult.

Everyone’s experience is different and can change at different times, depending on the situation and what you’re dealing with.

Find out more about common mental health problems in the workplace.

“A particular condition can manifest itself in such a variety of ways. OCD for instance conjures up a person being anal about how things are placed on their desk but the obsessive part can be about anything not just cleanliness or order” – Fiona S

Stress in the workplace

Lots of people find it easier to talk about stress than to talk about mental health. You probably hear people say, ‘I’m so stressed’ much more than you hear people say, ‘I’m feeling very low’ or ‘I’m feeling anxious’.

Research by the Mental Health Foundation found that, over the course of a year, 74 per cent of people have felt so stressed they have been overwhelmed or unable to cope.

“In general people [used to] call everything 'stress'…. I think there is a move towards being more open about such issues …there is still a long way to go.” – Mark L

Stress isn’t a diagnosable mental health condition. But stress is closely linked to mental health and wellbeing. It can cause mental health problems or make existing problems worse. Being stressed over a long period of time can also affect your physical health.

When you’re stressed, it’s common to focus on the stressor and believe that once this is overcome, feelings of stress will disappear. However, the best way to manage stress is to maintain a good work/life balance, including elements of self-care.

If you think of a car without any fuel, you wouldn’t expect it to keep going. As humans, our fuel is self-care. We need this to keep going and cope with stressful things.

As stress levels increase, performance tends to drop. If you’re a manager or employer, it’s important to help employees manage their stress levels at work and prevent them becoming overwhelmed.

Is some stress at work a good thing?

Stress is not a good thing, even in a work environment. Some people find it helpful to think about pressure as a positive force. Stress can be thought of as something that occurs when the pressure is too much and is affecting your life, wellbeing and health.

Looking after your mental health

Looking after your mental health doesn’t mean you can avoid problems entirely. But you still need to look after your mental health in the same way that you look after your physical health.

  • It can make you feel good. Doing things that you know improves your wellbeing can help you feel good and function well.
  • It can help you notice when things aren’t quite right. By staying aware of your moods, feelings and thoughts, you’re more likely to notice when things aren’t quite right and take action earlier.
  • It can help you manage pressure and prevent it becoming stress.
  • It may help you manage a mental health problem and make it easier to live with.

Looking after employees’ mental health

It’s important for managers to think about their employees’ mental health.

  • Work can cause mental health problems or make mental health problems worse. Issues like bullying, uncertainty, lack of control and a demanding role are all linked to the development of common mental health problems.
  • Positive work and line management can help people with mental health problems, providing identity, income and purpose.
  • Employees who have high levels of wellbeing are likely to be more creative, loyal and productive.
  • Workplace mental health support can help prevent employees developing common mental health problems.
  • Stigma is reduced when people can talk openly about mental health. This leads to more understanding and a greater likelihood people will seek support earlier.
  • By showing employees that their mental health is important to you, you make them feel valued, helping them feel able to talk openly with you.
  • Most workplace mental health support systems are not put in place until an employee is already ill and perhaps on sick leave. This can cost the business time and money, and probably adds to your team’s workload. It’s much easier to deal with problems at an early stage rather than wait until they reach crisis point.

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Related information

    • National study of health and wellbeing (APMS). NHS Digital. NHS., 2016
    • Mental health statistics: stress. Mental Health Foundation., 2018
    • Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. American Psychiatric Association (5th ed), published 2013
    • Mental health conditions, work and the workplace. Health and Safety Executive (HSE)., accessed May 2020
    • Ajayi, S. Effect of stress on employee performance and job satisfaction: a case study of Nigerian banking industry., published April 2018. doi: 10.2139/ssrn.3160620
    • Five ways to wellbeing: the evidence. New Economics Foundation., published October 2008
    • Jenkins R, Meltzer H, Jones PB, et al. Mental health: future challenges. The Government Office for Science, London, published 2008
    • Harvey SB, Modini M, Joyce S, et al. Can work make you mentally ill? A systematic meta-review of work-related risk factors for common mental health problems. Occup Environ Med 2017; 74:301–10
    • Added value: mental health as a workplace asset. Mental Health Foundation., published 2016
    • Tan L, Wang M, Modini M, et al. Preventing the development of depression at work: a systematic review and meta-analysis of universal interventions in the workplace. BMC Medicine 2014; 12:74. doi:10.1186/1741-7015-12-74
    • Gray NS, Davies H, Snowden RJ. Reducing stigma and increasing workplace productivity due to mental health difficulties in a large government organization in the UK: a protocol for a randomised control treatment trial (RCT) of a low intensity psychological intervention and stigma reduction programme for common mental disorder. BMC Public Health 2020; 20(1):896. doi: 10.1186/s12889-020-09054-0
    • Healthy workplaces: improving employee mental and physical health and wellbeing Quality standard. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence., published March 2017
  • Reviewed by Clare Foster, Freelance Health Editor, and Alice Windsor, Specialist Health Editor, Bupa Health Content Team, September 2020
    Expert reviewer, Moya Kerr, Cognitive Behavioural Therapist at Bupa
    Next review due September 2023

Did our information help you?

We’d love to hear what you think. Our short survey takes just a few minutes to complete and helps us to keep improving our health information.