Mental Wellbeing & Resilience

One in four people in the UK will experience a Mental Health problem in any given year. 70 million work days are lost every year in the UK to Mental Health conditions making it the leading cause of sickness absence and costing the UK economy between £70 & £100 billion each year.

Understanding common Mental Health Conditions: What are Stress, Anxiety & Depression?


The HSE’s formal definition of stress is “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types of demands placed on them”.

But whatever your personal definition of stress is, it's likely that you can learn to manage your stress better by:

  • Managing external pressures
  • Developing your emotional resilience - so you're well equipped to cope with tough situations when they do happen and reduce the physical and emotional impact them might have.

Being under pressure is a normal part of life. It can be a useful drive that helps you take action, feel more energised and get results. But if you often become overwhelmed by stress, these feelings could start to be a problem for you.

Stress is not an illness, it is a state. However, if stress becomes too excessive or prolonged, mental and physical illness may develop.

Recognising the Signs of Overwhelming Stress

All of us when under sufficient pressures exhibit the symptoms known as ‘stress’, these are listed in the table below.

As pressures increase the effects increase but whether this becomes ‘stress’ is determined by several variables;

  1. An Individual’s capacity to absorb pressure
  2. An individual’s capacity to relieve pressure
  3. How much pressure was already in the individuals life
  4. How fast pressure is increasing
  5. Past experience(s) of the same or similar pressure(s)

There is no-one who is immune from pressure; however the individual who becomes loud and emotional is both identifying themselves and relieving their pressure, the individual who simply goes quiet can be allowing the pressure to build and is sometimes at greater risk of being overwhelmed. 

Symptoms and Signs of Stress

Remember it is normal to experience some of these on occasions; it is how many, how often and how severe that is important.

Work Performance

  • poor concentration
  • inconsistent performance
  • uncharacteristic errors
  • indecisiveness
  • inability to deal calmly with everyday situations
  • signs of tiredness or anxious behaviour
  • making complaints
  • irritability
  • lapses in memory
  • reference to time pressure
  • resistance to change
  • lack of holiday planning and taking
  • longer or excessive hours
  • quickness to anger especially in conflict situations


  • arriving late
  • leaving early
  • extended lunches
  • absenteeism or increased sickness absence
  • passivity or lack of commitment

Abnormal Coping Strategies

  • changes in alcohol, tobacco or recreational drug use
  • changes to eating habits

What determines how big pressure become?

Pressures are of different ‘sizes’ and durations and are cumulative. The final ‘tipping point’ putting pressure into stress may be very small (it is simply the last straw), but will be the one the individual remembers.

There are four variables that determine the ‘size’ of a pressure:                       

  • Value - how important the issue is for the individual?
  • Control - whether the individual believes they can change the issue   or situation?                         
  • Change - the more the greater the pressure                                                                        
  • Uncertainty - the more the greater the pressure

Be aware that only control and uncertainty are amenable to quick intervention and change. 

The following is a course of questioning you can use if you suspect a colleague or yourself is becoming significantly ‘stressed’.

Q1.      Is this person behaving differently?

Requires knowledge of what the individual is usually like when not under pressure

Q2.    How are they behaving differently?

Key symptoms, going quiet, avoiding social contact, stopping usual hobbies / sports / pastimes, irritability, anger, poorer care of personal appearance, irrational thoughts or behaviour, paranoia.

Q3.    If in doubt ask the person if they are managing and then ask yourself “am I happy with the answer”?

Avoid direct questions such as “Are you alright?”  It will invariably receive the reply “yes”. Ask indirect questions such as “How is ….. affecting you” or “Does your wife/husband/significant other think you’re stressed?”

NB. Asking the questions can result in an emotional release and outpouring, but you have not done harm, if it hadn’t been your questions it would have been something else.

If at the end of this assessment the individual accepts there is a problem you should remind them of where they can get help to manage their ‘stress’.  Options might include you, friends, family, HR or Manager, Occupational Health or their GP.

If still in doubt

Tell the individual what you think and suggest they take some advice from someone they are happy with e.g. friend or family member or a professional in these matters, Occupational Health or their GP.

If at the end of all this, the individual doesn’t accept there is a problem but you feel there is then you should identify your concerns to a senior colleague.

Anxiety and Depression

Anxiety is a word used to describe feelings of unease, worry and fear. It incorporates both the emotions and the physical sensations we might experience when we are worried or nervous about something. Although we usually find it unpleasant, anxiety is related to the fight or flight response – our normal biological reaction to feeling threatened.

We all know what it’s like to feel anxious from time to time. It’s common to feel tense, nervous and perhaps fearful at the thought of a stressful event or decision you’re facing – especially if it could have a big impact on your life. For a short time you might even find it hard to sleep, eat or concentrate. Then usually, after a short while or when the situation has passed, the feelings of worry stop.

Because anxiety is a normal human experience, it's sometimes hard to know when it's becoming a problem for you – but if your feelings of anxiety are very strong, or last for a long time, it can be overwhelming. 

For example:

  • You might find that you’re worrying all the time, perhaps about things that are a regular part of everyday life, or about things that aren’t likely to happen 
  • You might regularly experience unpleasant physical and psychological effects of anxiety, and maybe panic attacks.
  • Depending on the kind of problems you experience, you might be given a diagnosis of a specific anxiety disorder.

We often use the expression ‘I feel depressed’ when we’re feeling sad or miserable about life. Usually, these feelings pass in due course. But, if the feelings are interfering with your life and don't go away after a couple of weeks, or if they come back, over and over again, for a few days at a time, it could be a sign that you're depressed in the medical sense of the term.

In its mildest form, depression can mean feeling low spirits. It doesn’t stop you leading your normal life, but makes everything harder to do and seem less worthwhile. At its most severe, major depression, or clinical depression, can be life-threatening, because it can make you feel suicidal or give up the will to live.

Managing & Preventing Mental Health Conditions

The University has a wide range of excellent resources to help individuals manage Mental Health problems, as well as resources for managers and teams to help support each other.

Please visit Personnel Service’s Work-Related Stress portal to find some of the internal resources available to everyone at the University. Please use Personnel Service's Stress Risk Assessment to help identify the workplace stressors and put reasonable adjustments in place to tackle those stressors.

For specific health-related advice on how best to support an employee with Mental Health Conditions, please refer the employee to Occupational Health. For more information on how to do this, please visit our Fit for Work & Referral to OHS page.

Resilience and Wellbeing

Resilience is the ability to bounce back and recover from adversity. For employees this means developing the physical energy, mental focus and emotional intelligence to manage their behaviours effectively to sustain their performance in today’s fast paced, ever changing home and work environments. 

Employees whose resilience skills are less developed may become overwhelmed by life’s challenges. They may dwell on problems resorting to coping strategies that negatively impact on their health, wellbeing and performance.

Developing some simple strategies to promote personal resilience can:

  • Improve performance in your personal and professional life through greater motivation, engagement and commitment in everything you do
  • Increase effectiveness and cohesiveness with your friends, family and work colleagues
  • Enable you to be the best that you can be - achieve your personal goals and contribute to team goals
  • Create a high performing positive and safe environment that helps sustain the reputation of the University as a place that grows academic excellence
  • Ensure the retention and recruitment of the best people
  • Support mental wellbeing

Occupational Health is continually developing bespoke resilience awareness seminar and workshop sessions to support the growth of resilience of University employees and teams. Please contact us to see if we can work with you to increase Resilience in your team.

Five-A-Day Stress Prevention

There are five important groups of behaviours that research suggests help us to maintain our general mental health and wellbeing:

  1. Be active and healthy. Exercising makes you feel good and prevents stress. Try to discover any physical activity you enjoy and that suits your level of mobility and fitness. Look after your diet and avoid unhealthy behaviours such as drinking or smoking. The University Club and University Sports Centre have great facilities including gyms as well as many affiliated sports and social clubs.
  2. Connect with the people around you: family, friends, colleagues and neighbours, at home, work, school or in your local community. Think of these as the cornerstones of your life and invest time in developing them. Building these connections will support you through difficult times.
  3. Take notice. This is often called mindfulness and is a powerful tool in our wellbeing armoury. Be aware of the world around you. Catch sight of the beautiful. Notice the changing seasons, savour the moment, whether you are walking to work, eating lunch or talking to friends. Reflecting on your experiences will help you appreciate what matters to you. Visit the NHS website for information on Mindfulness.
  4. Keep learning. Try something new. Sign up for that course. Take on a different responsibility at work. Set a challenge you enjoy achieving. Learning new things will make you more confident as well as being fun. The University offers a variety of courses in IT, adult education and self-development which can be found on the Training & Development page and the Oxford Learning Institute page.
  5.  Volunteer your time. Join a community group. Look out, as well as in; seeing yourself, and your happiness, as linked to the wider community can be incredibly rewarding and creates connections with the people around you. Information about volunteering can be found on the University’s Museum & Collections page and the Oxfordshire Community & Voluntary Action website.

Changing how you behave takes time and commitment so just try one area at a time. The benefits will be noticeable.

Employee Counselling Service

Confidential counselling is available for work-attributable health issues impacting on your performance and wellbeing at work. This service is available as part of Occupational Health Service’s case management service and is accessed via a referral to Occupational Health Services. Please see the FIT FOR WORK & REFERRAL TO OHS PAGE for more information on how to refer to OHS.

This counselling service operates on a confidential basis. Managers, Personnel Services and Occupational Health employees do not have any access to the counsellor’s notes.

Counselling organised by OHS is only available to help manage work-attributable issues. Employees who are experiencing issues not caused by work and would like to explore counselling services available to them are advised to seek this via their GP. Local counselling and psychotherapy practitioners can be found on the British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy website along with explanations of the types of therapies available. OHS cannot provide funding for these sessions.

Oxford Learning Institute Courses

Oxford Learning Institute organise a series of seminars for Mental Health and Wellbeing:

  • Assertiveness: - Aims to build confidence in voicing and assertive communication through discussions in pairs, groups, self-assessment and by practising real-life conversations.
  • Time management: - An online course to help individuals review their current time management skills and identify their priorities for action.
  • Feedback conversations:- Enables employees to practise the necessary skills to give and receive feedback in a clear, positive and constructive manner.
  • Mindfulness for health and wellbeing: - A six-week course funded by the Safety Office. The course provides an in-depth exploration of mindfulness skills and techniques giving you the chance to experience how adopting a more mindful approach can lead to improved emotional well-being and a greater sense of calm and balance. Please note that departments are asked to pay £100 towards the costs of each place. 

You may also find it helpful to use the online courses on 'Difficult Conversations and Working with Challenging Behaviour'. Both can be accessed on through the Oxford Learning Institute's playlists page:

Bullying & Harassment

Harassment is considered to be unwanted conduct affecting the dignity of men and women in the workplace. It may be related to age, sex, race, disability, religion, nationality or any personal characteristic of the individual, and may be persistent or an isolated incident. The key is that the actions or comments are viewed as demeaning and unacceptable to the recipient creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for another person.

Bullying is a form of harassment and may be characterised as offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means intended to undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient. The recipient does not need to have explicitly stated that the behaviour was unwanted. Bullying and Harassment are always unacceptable. 

The University does not tolerate any form of harassment and all members of the University community have a personal responsibility to comply with the Harassment Policy and Procedure.   If you feel you have been harassed or bullied please visit the Harassment Advisory Service for information on help available to you.


How do I predict who will have a Mental Health problem?

You cannot predict who will get a Mental Health problem, however statistically, one in four people will suffer from a Mental Health problem in their lives. The majority of sufferers work successfully and effectively whilst they manage their condition.

How can I spot if an employee has problems?

There are many signs and symptoms that someone is struggling with Mental Health problems. Some of the key signs are:

  • Changes in behaviour and/or performance
  • Tiredness or irritability
  • Poor time keeping or increased sickness absence
  • Loss of humour and/or changes in emotional mood
  • Headaches or tearfulness
  • Over performance-driving themselves to excess

I am worried about a member of my team who I think is struggling with stress. What should I do?

Talk to them. Have a discussion about what is causing the stress and try to create a supportive environment at work. If some of the causes are work-attributable, work with the employee to see if there are temporary adjustments that can be made to tackle these stressors. Help with this can be found on the Equality & Diversity webpage. You may also want to direct them to resources to help them manage their stress levels either internally or externally. Personnel Services have a series of Work-Related Stress Guidance pages which both employees and managers will find beneficial. You can also refer your employee, with their consent, to OHS for work-attributable issues. See the Fit for Work & Referral to OHS page for more information on this.

An employee in my team is feeling pressured by family and relationship issues outside of work which are causing them to not perform at their usual standard. What can I do to support them? Can they access the counselling service through work

Although work performance is being affected, the underlying cause of the dip in performance appears to not be attributed to work. The employee therefore would not be able to access the counselling service via Occupational Health and a referral to OHS would not be appropriate. Counselling would still be available via a referral from the employee’s GP to an external service if it were deemed to be an appropriate treatment option.

The best way for managers to support the employee would be to provide them with resources such as the MIND website or Talking Space Oxfordshire website that both have excellent support and advice networks to help the employee work through the aspects of their life causing their issues. You may also want to direct them to resources to help them manage their stress levels either internally or externally. Personnel Services have a series of Work-Related Stress Guidance pages which both employees and managers will find beneficial. Temporary workplace adjustments are also an excellent solution, information for which can be found on the Equality & Diversity webpage.

I am feeling under pressure at work because I have lots to do and deadlines are fast approaching. What can I do?

Personnel Services have a fantastic stress website which outlines tips and strategies to help you manage personal stress. Discuss your concerns with your manager to see if there is something you can do together to relieve the stressors affecting you. Guidance on how to identify these stressors with your manager can be found on the Personnel Services website. If you both feel that further assistance is required, a referral to Occupational Health can be made for medical advice. For details on how to refer to Occupational Health, please visit the Fit for Work & Referral to OHS page.

I have a difficult working relationship with a colleague. What advice and support is available to me on how to best manage our relationship?

It is important, to maintain a respectful, professional working relationship with all colleagues within the team. This will also promote better working efficiency and will make gaining support from colleagues, when under pressure, easier. You may wish to have a conversation with your manager or with your colleague directly to address your concerns about your working relationship. Alternatively a facilitated conversation or mediation meeting with HR support is an effective method of addressing the concerns of all parties. Please contact your local HR representative for support with this.