Mental health

We each have our own distinct perception of life through experiences with different thoughts, emotions physical processes and interactions. Everybody has mental health and physical health, and one can influence the other. These states can shift across a spectrum, and a mental state can change at any time, sometimes in response to recognisable factors and sometimes as a result of those which are harder to identify. These changes can lead to mental ill-health complications.

Most people will spend an average of 90,000 hours in work over a lifetime but a worker’s mental health does not start and end in the workplace. Mental health can be affected by factors both inside and outside of the workplace, which organisations should recognise.

By learning more about mental health and potential causes of mental ill-health, organisations become better able to implement effective management methods. These can prevent or limit work impacts on mental ill-health. Organisations may also develop a deeper understanding of what is happening to a worker with mental ill-health and be more empathetic to what they may be experiencing.

Workers with mental ill-health require:

  • support in gaining self-awareness and insight into their personal need to prevent the negative impacts of mental ill-health and to regain control
  • personalised return-to-work support where the focus is on values, views and needs
  • effective collaboration between various professionals.

Organisations who provide appropriate support for workers’ mental health are likely to experience:

  • improved productivity, innovation, efficiency and morale
  • reduced sickness absence and presenteeism, plus worker retention, leading to financial and resource savings
  • enhanced organisational reputation in the marketplace
  • satisfaction in honouring its duty of care towards its workers
  • savings in legal and regulatory.

Mental health, mental ill-health and stigma

A person’s mental health is the state of their psychological, emotional, cognitive and social wellness. It can affect decisions, reactions, attitude, behavioural and social characteristics and general mood. There can be a lot of stigma and misconception associated with mental health and what it means.

When talking about someone’s mental health, the perception is that it is a negative state of mind, emotions, behaviour or wellbeing. It is automatically associated with adverse effects, but this should not be the case.

Mental health

The World Health Organisation defines mental health as: “A state of wellbeing in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”

Mental health can describe both positive and negative mental states. These can be of a short (acute) or long-term (chronic) duration. States can change suddenly or progressively over a lifetime and can be unpredictable.

Positively, a person’s mental health can be healthy, stable, adaptable, strong and resilient. Therefore, organisations and occupational safety and health (OSH) professionals should take care when using the phrase ‘mental health’ and use it in the appropriate context.

Mental health can be negatively affected by:

  • past or present traumatic events
  • physical and mental abuse
  • environmental factors
  • significant events
  • specific tasks
  • fears or threats
  • other illnesses (including pain and chronic pain)
  • biological factors (eg, genes)
  • no obvious recognisable.

A persons mental health may change across a spectrum of states over time.  The mental state for some can change in a short period of time and fluctuate rapidly (eg day to day), and for some it can be more long-standing and have an effect over a longer period.

Movement from a positive to a negative mental health state caused by a negative event or factor


Mental ill-health

Mental ill-health can be described as:

 “When one’s mental health has reached a point where they cannot cope with stress, thoughts, emotions, or previously diagnosed disorders; and symptoms cannot be managed without the need for some sort of intervention.” – As defined by IOSH.

This means that someone may experience  symptoms of mental ill-health, and may require some sort of support, treatment or recovery time. However, this will not necessarily mean that they have a (diagnosed) mental disorder.

A mental disorder or condition or diagnosed mental illness can be described as:

“A state of mental ill health that can develop into known diagnosed mental illnesses or disorders that adversely affect the way one thinks, feels, behaves, interacts, and functions, and where medical intervention may be required.” As defined by IOSH.

Mental ill-health can also be referred to as a ‘mental health problem’.

When talking about diagnosed mental disorders, organisations must consider the  terminology they use that best suits their workplace. For example, a worker may be diagnosed with  a ‘mental disorder’. This terminology could be perceived negatively in the workplace. It could impede ambitions to reduce organisational stigma. Referring to ‘mental disorders’ as ‘mental ill-health conditions’ may be more beneficial for workers and the organisation. It may allow workers to be more honest and  open about mental ill-health.

It is true that once diagnosed, mental disorders can usually be treated with self-help, medication, psychological therapies and with the intervention of medical professionals. However, organisations should be implementing preventative controls in the workplace before negative mental health states are reached.


Mental ill-health can have associated stigma in the workplace and society. A stigma can be defined as a personal belief, mark of disgrace or negative attitude that is associated with an individual, group of people, circumstance or quality. Those who have mental ill-health can experience discrimination and exclusion. It is important that workers are encouraged to seek help for mental ill-health, both in and out of the workplace, and that organisations support this.

Workers may be embarrassed afraid or confused about what they are experiencing or feeling. This can make it difficult for workers to approach their organisation regarding their mental health and to seek support.

To help eradicate or alleviate concerns, managers and workers need to be educated  about mental health (and wellbeing) and adopt a ‘top–down’ approach to encourage and demonstrate workplace culture change. This approach will help to cascade values, attitudes and behaviours towards wellbeing in the workplace.

Removing stigma and already embedded perceptions about mental health through cultural change can take time and patience. It involves commitment, good leadership, effective communications (including training), the development of suitable preventative methods and supportive intervention when required.