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Stress and mental health at work


Work related stress is the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them at work.

Mental health is how we think, feel and behave.

Common mental health problems are those that:

  • are most frequent and more prevalent; and
  • are successfully treated in primary care settings like GPs rather than by specialists such as Psychiatrists

Anxiety is an unpleasant feeling when you feel worried, uneasy or distressed about something that may or may not be about to happen. (NHS Direct)

Depression is when you have feelings of extreme sadness, despair or inadequacy that last for a long time. (NHS Direct)

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Common mental health problems (CMHP)

One person in four in the UK will have a mental health problem at some point in their life. While mental health problems are common, most are mild. The family doctor and primary healthcare team can usually deal with them without referring the person for specialist help.

Anxiety and depression are the most common mental health problems. Often these are a reaction to a difficult life event, for example moving house, bereavement, or problems at work.

CMHPs tend to be short-term and are generally treated by medication from a GP. The GP will review this treatment and if there is no improvement, consider referring to a specialist.

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How CMHPs and work related stress go together

Work related stress and mental health often go together. The symptoms of stress and common mental health problems are similar, for example, loss of appetite, fatigue and tearfulness can be symptoms of both.

Work related stress may trigger an existing mental health problem that the person may otherwise have successfully managed without letting it affect their work.

For people with existing mental health issues, work related stress may worsen their problem. If work related stress reaches a point where it has triggered an existing mental health problem, it becomes hard to separate one from the other.

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How CMHPs and work related stress are different

Common mental health problems and stress can exist independently. For example, people can have work related stress and physical changes such as high blood pressure, without experiencing anxiety and depression. They can also have anxiety and depression without experiencing stress.

The key difference between the two is their cause and the way they are treated.

Stress at work is a reaction to events or experiences at work. CMHPs can arise through causes outside work, e.g. bereavement, divorce, postnatal depression or a family history of the problem. However, people can have CMHPs with no obvious causes.

Organisations can manage and prevent stress by improving conditions at work. Doctors usually treat common mental health problems by prescribing medication. However, you and your managers have a role in making adjustments and helping the person to manage the problem at work.

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Mental health problems

In practice, it can be hard to distinguish when ‘stress’ turns into a ‘mental health problem’ and when existing mental health problems become exaggerated by stress at work.

Many of the symptoms are similar to those that people experience when they are under considerable pressure; the key differences are in the severity and duration of the symptoms and the impact they have on someone’s everyday life.

Usually a general practitioner (GP) will make the diagnosis and offer treatment e.g. medication, talking therapies or a combination of both.

The majority of people with mental health problems are treated by their GP and most are capable of continuing to work productively. Evidence shows that employment can be of great benefit, both to the employer and to the employee.

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Find out more

Find out more about helping people with anxiety by going to the ANXIETY UK website. ANXIETY UK is a national registered charity formed 30 years ago by a sufferer of agoraphobia for those affected by anxiety disorders; it is still a user-led organisation, run by sufferers and ex-sufferers of anxiety disorders supported by a high-profile medical advisory panel.

Find out more about helping people with common mental health problems on the SHIFT line manager resource website.

Updated 2012-12-04