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Workplace Wellbeing 1: What is mental health?

Mental health is defined as our emotional, psychological and social wellbeing. It affects how we think, feel and act and is seen on a continuum, ranging from having good mental health to poor mental health.

A person will vary in their position along the continuum at different points in their life from thriving to surviving. Our position on the continuum will determine our ability to cope with the stresses of life, how we relate to others or make good choices.

A person with good mental health will feel in control of their emotions, have good cognitive functioning and positive interactions. A person with poor mental health may struggle to work productively, engage in good personal relationships and carry out daily activities such as washing, eating and even going to work.

What is mental ill health?

Mental health affects a person’s thinking, emotions and behaviour. There is not a one size fits all approach. A person suffering from a mental illness may only have a single episode in their lifetime, while others may have reoccurring episodes and a small minority have ongoing mental health issues.

The important thing to be aware of is mental ill health needs to be taken as seriously as a physical illness to enable people to access treatment and get well.

Mental Illnesses

Mental illnesses are common and vary in type. The most common are depression and anxiety disorders, whereas less common mental illnesses are disorders such as schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder. Mental illnesses can often occur in a combination, for example a person with anxiety can also develop depression.

Here are explanations of the common disorders but this list is not exhaustive:


Anxiety is a feeling of uneasiness or worry that can range from mild to severe. Everybody experiences anxiety at some time. An anxiety disorder however differs from normal anxiety. Symptoms of anxiety can be more severe, longer lasting and interfere with a person’s work or relationships and stop people from going out or doing things they enjoy.

General symptoms of anxiety; Palpitations, chest pain, rapid heartbeat, dizziness, headache, sweating, tingling and numbness, hyperventilation, shortness of breath, choking, dry mouth, vomiting, frequent urination, diarrhoea, muscle aches and pains, shaking, restlessness, excessive fear or worry, irritability, impatience, anger, difficulty making decisions, decreased concentration and memory, tiredness, sleep disturbance, intrusive thoughts.

People who suffer with anxiety may appear nervous and avoid doing certain tasks or going to certain places as it will increase their anxiety. In extreme cases people can have panic attacks. A person having a panic attack may experience similar symptoms as having a heart attack and feel like they are going to die, but the feelings wear off after a while and they return to normal. However, the intensity of the anxiety and experience is overwhelming.

Panic Disorder

A person with a panic disorder has panic attacks or a fear that a panic attack might occur. A panic attack is when your body experiences a rush of intense mental and physical symptoms. It can be very distressing and frightening for a person to experience a panic attack as often a person will have a sense of impending doom or death and feel completely out of control and hopeless.

Symptoms of a panic attack: Increased awareness of heartbeat, sweating, feeling of choking, shortness of breath, chest pain, nausea or abdominal distress, feeling of unreality, fear of losing control, fear of dying, feeling dizzy, unsteady, light-headed or faint, numbness, pins and needles or tingling, chills or hot flushes.

Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

There are different types of anxiety disorders, the main one being Generalised Anxiety Disorder. A person with GAD will experience physical and psychological symptoms of anxiety or worry more days than not and these continue for at least six months.

GAD can make it difficult for people to concentrate at work and at home and a person may generally struggle to get on with their lives. A person who has been experiencing Generalised Anxiety Disorder for a while may display the following behavioural symptoms along with the general anxiety symptoms listed above:

  • Constant reassurance seeking around everyday matters
  • Difficulty in making decisions that would normally be easy


A person experiencing a phobia has a specific fear and avoids or restricts certain activities. This fear is considered an unreasonable and excessive fear and is commonly associated with fears of leaving the house, crowds, public places, travelling on buses, trains or planes or public speaking. A person can also have a phobia of animals or a specific place or indeed anything.

It is an irrational cognitive process, hence people suffering with a phobia do not behave rationally when confronted with their phobia. For example, people who are afraid of spiders will jump, scream and run across the room to get away from the spider, when in reality the spider is probably more scared of them and in most cases the spider is completely harmless.


Depression is a low mood that lasts for a long time and affects your everyday life. It can range from mild to severe. In its mildest form it doesn’t stop you from leading a normal life but makes everything harder. At its most severe, depression can be life threatening and can make you feel suicidal.

Symptoms of depression:  An unusually sad mood that does not go away, lack of energy, tiredness, loss of enjoyment and interest in activities, feeling guilty, difficulty concentrating or making decision, difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much, eating less or more, loss of confidence, weight loss or weight gain, suicidal thoughts.

Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar is a form of manic depression. A person who has bipolar disorder will experience depression on some occasions and mania on others. Therefore, a person’s mood can change between two very opposite states being very grandiose and excitable to becoming very depressed. In the past, bipolar disorder was referred to as manic depression, so you might still hear people use this term.

Mania symptoms may include: Seeming overconfident and full of energy, very talkative, finding it difficult to stick to one subject in conversation, having less need for sleep, seeming full of ideas, taking risks they normally wouldn’t, grandiose ideas and lose touch with reality.

It is important for people with bipolar to comply with their medication regime to maintain a consistent mood otherwise they may become very depressed or very manic which is can be very difficult for the family to live with such extremes of behaviour.

For example, a person suffering with bipolar in a manic episode may one day decide they are going to sell their house and move to another country and the following month feel extremely depressed and unable to get out of bed. People suffering with bipolar often feel a deep sense of regret and shame about the things they have done when they were in a high or manic state and this regret can increase the intensity of depression.


Schizophrenia is a psychotic disorder and is characterized by abnormal social behaviour and failure to understand reality. Many people believe that schizophrenia means ‘split personality’, however, the term schizophrenia actually means ‘split mind’. It is a severe long term mental health condition and causes a range of different psychological symptoms.

Symptoms can include: Hallucinations (hearing or seeing things that do not exist), delusions (unusual beliefs not based on reality), muddled thoughts based on hallucinations or delusions and changes in behaviour.

Personality Disorders

Personality disorders are conditions in which an individual differs significantly from commonly accepted norms in terms of how they think, perceive, feel or relate to others. People with personality disorders can often be extremely challenging to manage as they can be chaotic and disruptive and then at other times very distant. Often the behaviour may be deemed as going from one extreme to another.

Common features of personality disorders include: Being overwhelmed by negative feelings such as distress, worthlessness or anger, avoiding other people, feeling empty and emotionally disconnected, difficulty managing negative feelings without self-harming (for example, cutting or burning oneself, misusing drugs and alcohol or taking an overdose), difficulty maintaining stable and close relationships, especially with partners, children and professional carers, sometimes periods of losing contact with reality.

Most common personality disorders are:

Borderline Personality Disorder: Intense but unstable emotions which may shift rapidly based on external circumstances, continual efforts to avoid real or perceived abandonment, intense but unstable relationships with others, marked by seeing a person as ‘all good’ or ‘all bad’, impulsivity and a tendency to engage in risk-taking behaviour, repeated suicidal thoughts, difficulty with intense feelings of anger, which may seem inappropriate for the situation.

Anti-social Personality Disorder: Lack of concern, regret or remorse about other people’s distress, irresponsibility and disregard for normal social behaviour, difficulty in sustaining long-term relationships, little ability to control anger, lack of guilt, or not learning from mistakes, blaming others for their problems.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Exaggerating one's own achievements and abilities, feeling entitled to be treated better than other people, exploiting other people for one's own personal gain, lacking empathy for other people’s weaknesses and emotions, looking down on people thought to be ‘beneath’ them, feeling envious of people thought to be ‘above’ them.

Physical Health

Musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) are the largest reported reason for sickness absence in the UK effecting long-term sickness absence. An estimated 2.1 million people in the UK are suffering from an illness caused or made worse by their work.

The mind and body are connected and it is very common that poor physical health is related to mental ill health. If a person is repeatedly off sick with minor illnesses or MSD it is likely they may also be experiencing stress.

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