By Phillipa Wilson, Founder and MD of Premium Health

Over the past few years, we’ve welcomed a greater willingness to engage in conversations around mental health in the workplace. And not a moment too soon, with around 450 million reported cases of mental health issues existing across the globe, making it one of the world’s most prevalent health concerns.

But while the stigma is slowly lifting, understanding the specifics of the matter still has some way to go. For example, the terms “mental illness” and “mental health” are often used interchangeably, when in fact they mean quite different things.

The two aren’t mutually exclusive, and may overlap – both requiring proactive treatment. But in reality, they need very different levels of support. So, it’s important to understand the difference between mental health and mental illness – especially if you want to know how to effectively prevent and address each in the workplace.

What is Mental Health?

Mental health is a broad term that encompasses the general state of a person’s mental wellbeing. It’s more technically defined as “a person’s condition regarding their psychological and emotional well-being.”

In the same way that “health” is an umbrella term for a person’s physical state, mental health houses various concepts and issues. It’s more of a spectrum or sliding scale, and mental health issues don’t all necessarily need medical intervention. Indeed, this is where we can create a workplace environment which assists in attaining positive mental health.


We all have times in our lives where a relationship with a loved one is at breaking point, we are grieving for something or someone and/or we are sad.  These times bring natural emotions such as anger, apathy and sadness, but having a workplace which provides open discussion allows employees to feel safe, understood and protected.

Emotions are normal, but it’s when these go on for long periods that they require more proactive management and can be detrimental to the employee and surrounding environment. In fact, untreated mental health conditions are said to cost Australian workplaces approximately $10.9 billion each year.

So, what is Mental Illness?

Mental illness is defined as “a condition which causes serious disorder in a person’s behaviour or thinking.” While most people will probably experience mental health issues at some point in their lives, less people are likely to suffer from mental illnesses – such as depression and anxiety, as well as more complex disorders like bipolar, schizophrenia, psychosis or personality disorders.

Some illnesses are genetic, whilst others are brought on by traumatic events and circumstances. And while mental health issues can often be addressed with effective workplace wellbeing programs and lifestyle changes, mental illnesses need professional treatment – ranging from talking therapies to prescription medications.

Some mental illnesses are life-long, while others may occur as a once-off episode, or infrequent recurring issue. People with an understanding of their mental health and low genetic risk are less likely to encounter mental illnesses unless a dramatic event triggers them.  But those who are genetically prone to conditions or don’t have great mental resilience are more likely to suffer. Whatever their duration or cause may be, mental illnesses can cause severe damage to those suffering them and to the people around them – so addressing them early on is imperative.

Mental Health vs Mental Illness in the workplace

It’s all well and good discussing the theory – but what about when these issues actually crop up in the workplace? How do we know whether we’re dealing with a mental illness or not, and what can we do about it?

The main difference is usually the severity of the impact of a condition on an employee’s behaviour. Most staff will experience periods of feeling low, stressed, unproductive, unable to cope with change or overwhelmed at some point – and these can be addressed by looking at the issues and resolutions available to overcome the problem. Addressing the triggers of these mental health lows and implementing mental health policies and training, with your staff’s improved resilience and happiness in mind, is key.

A mentally healthy workplace creates flexibility and a provides a safe environment for its workforce. It celebrates its employees, cares for staff, gives adequate support and cultivates premium health outcomes through peaceful, communicative and positive environments. This will reduce stress, increase productivity, improve relations and reduce absenteeism.

But mental illnesses will most likely have a more severe impact on an employee’s behaviour – ranging from psychotic episodes and suicidal tendencies, to harder-to-discern mood swings and ongoing unhappiness or bad behaviour.

Although you can take measures to improve the general mental state of all staff in order to avoid triggering mental illnesses, most cases will require proper treatment outside of the office. So, if we suspect that someone is experiencing a mental illness issue (however mild) it is imperative that we ensure they seek professional help.


Phillipa Wilson is the Founder and Managing Director of Premium Health, an RTO that delivers premium health outcomes within Australian workforces including mental health and wellbeing training:

Premium Health offers mental health training including mental health awareness and effective conversations and Mental Health First Aid at your workplace and public venues across Australia.

Find out more  about why you should be investing in mental health training for your business today. 

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