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What is mental ill health?

At least 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health condition at some point in their life.

Everybody responds differently to the stresses and strains of modern life and it is common to describe ourselves as ‘depressed’, ‘stressed’ or ‘anxious’ at times. For some, these feelings can become serious enough to make it difficult to carry on with normal daily activities. Indeed, 1 in 6 adults have a mental health condition at any one time – and among adults of working age that can be as high as 1 in 3.

The definition of mental ill health covers a very wide spectrum, from the worries and grief we all experience as part of everyday life to the most bleak, suicidal depression or complete loss of touch with everyday reality. The cause may not necessarily be work-related. The person concerned may be experiencing difficulties outside the workplace such as bereavement, financial problems, relationship breakdown or other family problems. Indeed, non-work related stress, anxiety and depression cause more sickness absence than work-related difficulties. At such times, work may be the ‘safe place’: the place where they feel supported and valued, and your role will be an important one. And with the right support, most people do make a recovery.

We all need to look after our mental health - click here for some tips on keeping yourself well. 


For some, the link between stress and mental ill health may be a new one. We all need and, to a degree, thrive on pressure: it gives us energy, helps with performance and inspires confidence. But excessive pressure can lead to stress. While in itself not a mental health condition, stress may become a problem when a person feels they don’t have the resources to cope with the demands placed upon them. Symptoms may be emotional (e.g. irritability, tearfulness) and physical (aches and pains, high blood pressure etc). The person may find it difficult to make decisions or perform tasks and may be unable to attend work. Harmful levels of stress can lead to mental health difficulties such as anxiety and depression.



Anxiety becomes a problem when feelings of tension and fear prevent a person from carrying out everyday tasks. People with a generalised anxiety disorder find it hard to control their worries. The ability to think with clarity can also be affected. In some cases people may suffer panic attacks or phobias. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a form of anxiety where people have recurrent, intrusive thoughts, which they may feel ‘forced’ to act on (e.g. fears of contamination leading to repetitive hand washing). Watch our video about anxiety.



Depression is sometimes described as mild, moderate or severe. Symptoms include feelings of deep sadness that can last for a long time (weeks or months) and are serious enough to interfere with daily life. Motivation can be affected and people may experience thoughts of life not being worth living, which in some cases can lead to suicidal behaviour. Watch this video about depression from the World Health Organisation


Take a look at more information on stress, anxiety and depression.



Both these terms are used to describe this condition where a person may ‘swing’ between episodes of extreme low mood and depressive symptoms to being ‘high’ or elated. During a manic episode a person may have high energy levels, grand or unrealistic ideas and become reckless (e.g. taking risks, overspending). People may go through the mood cycles at different rates and times. Click here for more information.



Psychosis is a term used when a person appears to lose touch with reality. Schizophrenia is the most common form and people may hear, see or believe things that aren’t real to others (e.g. hearing voices, feelings of paranoia). If the illness becomes chronic (long term) the person may withdraw from the outside world and neglect themselves. Click here for more information and to watch a video about psychosis


There are other conditions such as Personality Disorder and mental ill health is often associated with eating disorders, and drug and alcohol abuse. For more information about mental health conditions, treatment and recovery visit


There are many different types of therapies or ‘talking treatments’ which can involve talking over difficulties and feelings, changing the way they communicate or behave or make decisions that affect their lives. Some common talking treatments are counselling, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), and psychotherapy. Therapies can be offered through the NHS usually via GP referral or can be paid for privately. Medication can be very effective especially if used alongside ‘talking treatments’, support from others and lifestyle changes. If a person’s symptoms are severe enough they may be referred by their GP to specialist or ‘secondary care’ mental health services. Some people may also be 'sectioned' - click on the link to find out what that means.



Recovery is about seeing people beyond their problems, recognising and fostering the opportunities that harness their abilities, interests and dreams. Unlike with a physical illness, it is not always possible to talk of a ‘cure’. In a mental health context, recovery emphasises that while people may not have full control over their symptoms, they can have full control over their lives. The MINDFUL EMPLOYER Line Managers’ Resource contains more information and guidance about supporting your staff.

And take a look at an ACAS online learning course developed in conjunction with MINDFUL EMPLOYER. Scroll down the courses to Mental health awareness for employers. You'll need to log in or create an account.




If you are worried about someone who is expressing suicidal thoughts then there is some useful information on suicide

Asperger Syndrome and other Autistic Spectrum Disorders are not mental health conditions but people with such conditions may also experience mental ill health - download this useful paper about Autism & the workplace from the TUC. AS Mentoring offer specialist workplace support as do the National Autistic Society.

Dementia is also an area of concern and, while not a mental health condition, information and help is available at and watch this video made with employers in mind.

Alcohol and drug use can also be associated with mental ill health. There is a lot of information available about alcohol issues and drug usage. Alcoholics Anonymous have Employment Liaison Officers who can provide support for employers and employees.

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