Having a healthy mind

Poor mental health is estimated to cost employers £32bn per year, with almost a third being attributed to lost employment and productivity due to conditions such as schizophrenia, depression, anxiety and stress-related conditions.1

Twenty per cent of women and 14 per cent of men have some form of mental ill health in England, and in Scotland, 117,000 people with mental ill health are unemployed.2 Nearly three in 10 employees will have some kind of mental health problem in any one year.

This article is not about stress management, but how we can enhance our own mental health both inside and outside the workplace.

Individual Difference in Mental Health suggests mental health be viewed in dynamic terms and not as a static concept, as there are cultural and economic factors that may influence how mental health is defined and classified.3 Also, it is important to recognise the subjectivity of mental health by including the words ‘well being’, as one person’s mental well being may be another’s mental ill health.

There is a broad level of agreement of the main characteristics of good mental well-being, which include an ability to:

  • develop self-esteem/sense of personal worth
  • communicate
  • face problems, resolve and learn from them
  • be confident and assertive
  • awareness of others and ability toempathise with them
  • be able to ‘play’ and have fun
  • be able to laugh, both at one’s self and at the world around them.1,2

The indicators above provide a sound guide for both individuals and organisations alike to consider, which this article will explore in more detail.
We all experience life’s ‘roller coaster’ of emotions – the ecstatic highs of success, happiness and love, to the despair and anxiety felt because of failure, conflict or unhappiness. Being mentally well doesn’t mean we don’t experience the lows of life; it is how we behave towards these feelings that make a difference.

For example, being able to accept and understand feelings rather than trying to fight or deny their existence. Being angry or upset because of a situation or because of what a person has done is natural and absolutely normal, so being mentally well means acknowledging them and understanding the fact that it is normal and right to have these feelings.

Imagine going for an interview for that ‘perfect’ job, and after performing brilliantly at the interview. You then discover that you didn’t get the job and, to add insult to injury, the person who did get the job is someone who knows less than you, has done the job for half the time you’ve done it, and you don’t even like them:

  • You will feel shocked, hurt, almost disbelieving – you want to be alone
  • Then it’s anger and resentment
  • Then you may try to meet with the manager who has made this decision and negotiate another interview
  • It may well be that you become depressed about the job – should you move on and start somewhere else?
  • Finally, you start to accept what has happened and we may even acknowledge that the right person got the job after all.

On Death and Dying describes those five stages within the grieving process.4 The aim here is to understand that we can be angry, anxious and hurt, but that it is normal. It is about keeping things in perspective that allows people to move on. It is when people struggle to accept these feelings that they can become overwhelming and destructive to the person, who may remain bitter, resentful and ultimately unhappy.

Self-awareness is a key characteristic of mental well-being. Being self-aware is about knowing yourself, knowing your strengths and weaknesses, and acknowledging them for what they are – part of us. By having an awareness of how we are perceived by others – surprisingly less common than we think – we can amend, change or develop aspects that enhance how we behave or communicate with others.

The self consists of all the ideas, perceptions and values that characterise us – our personality. A perceived self-concept will then influence both our perceptions of the world and our behaviour within that world. If we perceive that we are powerful and successful then this will influence how we see the world around us in the same way as a person who views themselves as weak and lacking confidence may view the same world differently.

In his theory of personality, Carl Rogers wrote that the self is central.5 If the self-concept of a person is inconsistent with reality – for example, ‘I am not a bully, I am successful, it is my colleagues who are lazy and incompetent… all 500 of them!’ – then there is likely to be greater potential for maladjustment. In other words, defensive behaviours that are likely to be damaging towards others and ultimately oneself.

Developing mental well-being

We all possess some form of skills and talents. Following them enables us to reduce boredom and a sense of hopelessness, and it is possible to enhance expertise and derive genuine pleasure from achievements. A healthy mental well-being is being able to engage in activities that generate fun, pleasure and meaning for the person. Play is therapeutic as it can allow us to channel emotions into more socially acceptable activities. Skills and expertise gained through play can improve our sense of achievement and, in turn, enhance our self-esteem.

Being able to address problems, solve them and ultimately learn from them is a good characteristic of mental well-being. Allied to this is the importance of perceived control. According to Control: Encyclopaedia of Mental Health, control is the ability to intentionally influence environmental, psychological or behavioural events.6 People who perceive they have control also feel they can influence events and that they can predict what happens to them. Whereas people who consistently feel out of control may give up, feel helpless and cope less well with adversity.
Research in western, industrialised cultures shows that people who feel in control tend to live longer, suffer fewer serious illnesses and have better psychological health than people who do not feel in control.

The origins of problem-solving is based on the work of Goldfried and Davison, D’Zurilla and Nezu, and Wasik.7,8,9 Developing problem-solving training courses were found to be effective in enhancing a person’s coping skills. These incorporated a sequential problem-solving algorithm, which included a simple self-questioning process (see box left).

Part of problem-solving training involves asking participants what advice they would give to someone else who may also be experiencing a problem. This is a method of helping participants appreciate that they possess problem-solving capacities and enables them to reframe stressors as problems to be solved rather than as personal threats or provocations.

Daniel Goleman’s book on emotional intelligence highlights some of the emotional competencies workplace managers need to possess to be effective in the modern workplace.10 One of these is being able to understand and relate to others’ feelings and perspectives. People who report good mental health are able to engage with others, establish social networks and maintain meaningful relationships with others.

This means being able to affiliate – in other words, get close to others – and being able to negotiate give and take alliances and friendships. Crucial to this, is the ability to negotiate, which means being able to see that we may not have all the answers and to allow ourselves to learn from others, from experience and to alter our beliefs based upon new information. It’s about treating people the way we would want to be treated.
Being able to empathise is a crucial element of good mental well-being. By being empathetic, we are able to understand the feelings of others and, most importantly, the ability to communicate this back to the person. This is part of Carl Roger’s ingredients, which include warmth and being genuine.11 These elements contribute to successful relationship building.

Mental wellness is often characterised by good communication skills and not feeling bad about stating what you want. Being assertive is being able to state what you want clearly, without being aggressive, too apologetic or feeling guilty. Being able to assert yourself is to understand the uniqueness of our individuality, appreciating it and also learning to like ourselves – not too much, but enough to recognise our talents and contributions and see them in a positive light.

In addition to raising your mood, a good sense of humour may also add a degree of richness and fullness to your life. According to Laughter: A Scientific Investigation, it is important to recognise “laughter no more evolved to make us feel good or improve our health than walking evolved to promote cardiovascular fitness!”12

Although the same writer suggests that there is really very little research-based evidence to support the common view that laughter improves health, Norman Cousins, in Anatomy of an Illness (as Perceived by the Patient),13 describes his successful treatment for ankylosing spondylitis – a painful and life-threatening degenerative disease – with vitamin C, Marx Brothers’ films and watching episodes of the 1960s television series, Candid Camera.

There is much anecdotal evidence that humour can promote a sense of well-being and it has been used to improve social interactions and relations. Humour and Mental Health, The Encylcopaedia of Mental Health describes it as having a “social lubricating function”, because it reduces anxiety and tension during social interactions and, in turn, promotes smoother interactions.14

Humour is not always associated positively as a mental well-being enhancer as it may be an expression of an underlying pathological problem and, in such cases, rather than acting as a ‘social lubricant’, it becomes abrasive. However, by being able to look at an issue from the ‘funny side’ shows good self-awareness and stops us from taking ourselves too seriously, which is crucially important for good mental health.

There is an extensive amount of research that links the psychological benefits of exercise. The evidence is growing that properly prescribed and sensibly taken simple exercises can reduce anxiety and alleviate depression.

There are four areas where physical activity has potentially had a positive influence:

  • As treatment or therapy for existing mental health problems
  • Improve the quality of life for people with mental health problems
  • To prevent the onset of mental health problems
  • To improve the mental well-being of the general public.15

Finally, there are spiritual beliefs that help many people. The issue of religion and spiritual support is considered in more detail in Koenig’s book, Is Religion good for your health?16

Walter Brennon is a training consultant and runs a course entitled Mental Wealth, which aims to help participants improve their mental well-being by covering a number of topics and apply them using exercises within an emotionally safe and confidential environment.


1. The Mental Health Foundation (1999) Factsheet
2. The Scottish Public Mental Health Alliance (2002)
3. Daruna JH, Barnes PA (1998) Individual Differ-ences in Mental Health. Academic Press, New York
4. Kubler-Ross, E (1997) On Death and Dying. Collier Books
5. Rogers CR (1959) A theory of therapy, personality and interpersonal relationships as developed in the client-centred. In SL Koch (Ed.) Psychology: A study of a science: Vol 3. Formulations of The Person and the Social Context, McGraw-Hill, New York
6. Morling B and Fiske S (1998) Control: Encyclopaedia of Mental Health. Academic Press, New York, pp561-570
7. Goldfried M, Davison G (1976) Clinical behaviour therapy. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston
8. D’Zurilla T, Nezu A (1982) Social problem-solving in adults. In D Kendall (Ed.) Advances in cognitive-behavioural research and therapy (Vol.1) New York: Academic Press
9. Wasik B (1984) Teaching parents effective problem-solving: A handbook for professionals. Unpublished manuscript. University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
10. Goleman D (1999) Working with Emotional Intelligence, Bloomsbury, London
11. Roger CR & Stevens B (1967) Person to person: The problem of being human. Pocket Books, New York
12. Provine RR (2000) Laughter. A Scientific Investigation. Faber & Faber Ltd, London
13. Cousins N (1979) Anatomy of an Illness (as Perceived by the Patient), Norton, New York
14. Kuiper N & Olinger LJ (1998) Humour and Mental Health, The Encylcopaedia of Mental Health, Academic Press, New York, pp445-457
15. Fox KR (2000) Physical activity and mental health promotion: the natural partnership. International Journal of Mental Health Promotion 22 4-12
16. Koenig HG (1997) Is Religion good for your health? Haworth Press, New York


  • Problem identification (What is the concern?)
  • Goal selection (What do I want?)
  • Generation of alternatives (What can I do?)
  • Consideration of consequences (What might happen?)
  • Decision-making (What is my decision?)
  • Implementation (Now do it!)
  • Evaluation (Did it work?)

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