From stress to breakdowns, why we need to start talking about mental health at work

But Gina was not heading to the river to clear her head. She was going to end her life.

“I was at breaking point,” says Gina, 25. “When I’d told my bosses work pressure was making me depressed and causing me to self-harm, they just told me to hide my tears and scars in the office.

"I was totally taken aback at the coldness of their response. I felt I had nowhere to turn and no choice but to try and hide my feelings – but then they suspended me before letting me go.

“Losing my job made me lose all hope. And because I wasn’t thinking rationally, suicide felt like my only option.”

Shockingly, over 300,000 people with mental health issues like Gina lose their jobs each year in the UK.

Figures from the Mental Health Foundation (MHF) reveal that around one in seven people experience mental health problems in the workplace, while women in full-time employment are almost twice as likely to have emotional wellbeing issues as men working the same hours.

In fact, rates of anxiety and depression among employees have risen by nearly a third since records began in 2013, according to the UK Council for Psychotherapy. And some occupations have a higher suicide risk than others. ONS figures published in 2017 showed that between 2011 and 2015, the risk of suicide among women was highest in artistic, literary and media professions.

“We spend about a third of our life at work, and one in five adults experience suicidal feelings in their lives,” explains Ruth Sutherland, CEO of The Samaritans. “So it’s very likely that there are people suffering and trying to hide it in the workplace. People who have felt overwhelmed at work say they didn’t want to let anyone down, or didn’t want to be seen as a poor performer. They suffer in silence until they reach crisis point.”

Just over two years ago, Gina was thrilled to land her £18,000-a-year marketing assistant job. After graduating with a degree in business and management from Leeds Beckett University, she’d spent 12 months working in retail and felt her new role was her first step on the career ladder.

“But after only a few weeks my workload increased and I was constantly stressed,” she explains. “I’d often stay until 7pm, even though I was meant to leave at 5pm, because I felt so unproductive. I always worked through lunch, and I didn’t stop thinking about my job until late in the evening.

“I remember one Friday afternoon feeling so overwhelmed as urgent emails flooded my inbox and my phone didn’t stop ringing. On top of that my boss was on my back constantly for progress reports. In the end I just burst into tears. I thought she’d realised she’d pushed me too far, but she just threw a box of tissues at me and didn’t say a word. That night, I went home and couldn’t stop thinking I wasn’t good enough for my job. It was horrible.”

Gina felt too ashamed to confide in anyone about her work issues. “But not sharing my worries made me internalise them,” she admits. “I would often feel panicky on the bus going to work, half not wanting to go and half frustrated at the time it took to get there as I knew I had so much to do.

“As the months went on, I found myself making excuses to avoid nights out with mates because it was such an effort trying to pretend that all was OK at work, and because I felt crushing exhaustion. I put on such a good show of making out everything was fine, friends and family didn’t notice.”

In July 2016 Gina finally told her GP, who prescribed antidepressants and a course of counselling. But neither stopped her stress levels rocketing at work, often leaving her tearful and fretful. By January 2017, her bosses sent her home on medical suspension, claiming she was mentally unfit to work and that her presence was making others unproductive.

It was such an effort trying to pretend I was OK

“They were very formal,” she remembers. “They spoke to me in a business-minded way rather than on a human level. I wasn’t shown any support, just escorted out of the building. It happened so fast, I felt so shocked and utterly hopeless.”

Once home, Gina confessed to her parents what had been going on, and over the next two months they encouraged her to keep up with her therapy sessions. She received no contact from her work until two months later, when she was called in for a meeting and bosses told her she was being let go. “My boss claimed I had performance issues,” she remembers. “They told me my spelling and grammar in emails was rushed and that they had to let me go. The whole meeting left me reeling, and I was stunned by their lack of sympathy.”

It was the next night that Gina decided to end her life in a nearby river in March 2017. However, on the walk there, something made her call The Samaritans.

“I don’t know why, but I wanted to offload to someone I didn’t know,” she remembers. “As the words tumbled out, I could tell they were really listening to me, and that was enough for me to turn back home.”

Gina returned to her GP the next day, and continued with medication and counselling.

“Recovery came in baby steps,” she remembers. “There were nights when I just wanted to hide in my room. But to build up my confidence I began volunteering with older people and campaigning for the Labour party during the general election.”

She enjoyed working on the campaign so much that she decided to go back to university last September to study for a master’s degree in international development, aiming towards a career in politics. “Tackling mental health in the workplace will be top of my agenda,” she insists.

In fact, the MHF has called for employers to treat stress and mental health risks as seriously as physical health and safety, after a report it released in May this year found that 81% of women felt overwhelmed or unable to cope in the past year because of stress. “While stress isn’t a mental health problem in itself, it often leads to depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicide,” warns MHF director Mark Rowland.


To mark World Suicide Prevention Day tomorrow, The Sun is launching its You’re Not Alone campaign.

In the UK, someone attempts suicide every four minutes, while over 10 million of us have experienced suicidal thoughts, which is why we’re calling on you to learn the signs to look for – in others and yourself.


Mum of two Kim Palmer, 39, can still remember the first time she had a panic attack at work five years ago.

“It came from absolutely nowhere – I’d never had anything like it before,” she remembers. “I was doing a presentation in front of my colleagues and suddenly my heart started racing and I was consumed by nerves. As I tried to keep a lid on it I got verbal diarrhoea, which made me panic even more and I could barely catch my breath. What made it worse was, as I looked around the room, I knew everyone could see something was wrong, and that made me feel even more out of control.”

Eventually Kim, who was six months pregnant at the time, regained her composure – but for her, the damage had already been done.

“I was in a senior position working as a marketing director for a start-up in London, and I felt I was meant to know everything and always be in control,” she admits. “It was a huge amount of pressure to put on myself, but I really wanted to be Superwoman. I’d go above and beyond because I couldn’t bear the thought of anyone thinking I wasn’t brilliant at my job. But the combination of me being such a people-pleaser and a perfectionist at work had pushed my mental health to breaking point.”

Kim began to suffer from anxiety and panic attacks on a regular basis – although she never confided in anyone, not even her husband, Simon, 37. “I’d make up excuses not to attend meetings, scared I’d have an attack in front of people,” she remembers. “On the outside I’d still come across as a very capable career woman, but underneath all my confidence had cracked.”

Kim’s anxiety continued as she went on maternity leave after having son Louis, and she would avoid meet-ups with other mums for fear of having a panic attack. Then, when Louis was six months old, Kim was made redundant after the company folded. “I had to start looking for a new job, which was terrifying,” she remembers. “I even had a panic attack at an interview in December 2014. I could feel it coming on as I waited to be called in, so sat in the toilets until I was calmer. Even so, I barely spoke in my interview, as I was worried it would make my heart race and head spin again. I don’t think they realised what was happening, but I didn’t get the job.”

The experience was enough for Kim to finally confide in her husband.

Being a perfectionist pushed my health to breaking point

He was shocked but supportive and persuaded her to sign up for private CBT sessions. “I went, but it didn’t really work for me,” says Kim. “But then a friend told me about hypnotherapy, and that was the key for me. It made me realise I’d been suffering from a form of PTSD following that first panic attack.” Regular hypnotherapy sessions helped Kim detach herself from that awful day. However, when she started a new job in May 2015 as a management consultant, her anxiety came flooding back.

“In my second week, I had to go to a meeting and I just couldn’t bring myself to be in a room and speak with a group of colleagues,” she remembers. “In the end I bolted out of the office, pretending I had to pick up my son from nursery. That day I got myself an emergency appointment with my hypnotherapist and we started working intensively again to build up my confidence.”

After three months, Kim left the job to work at a digital agency. “In my first week I had a mini panic attack,” she remembers. “But rather than let it consume me I went to my CEO and confessed that I struggled with mental health issues. She was amazing. She told me I really needed to give myself a break and stop trying to be Superwoman, as I was putting far too much pressure on myself. She was such a support and helped turn everything around for me.”

Since then Kim, who is now also mum to four-month-old Kingsley, has gone on to set up her own app, Clementine, to support women in the workplace, especially those with mental health issues.
“I’m on a mission to help those who have anxiety, lack confidence or just aren’t coping,” she explains.

“The app is like a really supportive community packed with information and advice. It took me a long time to realise that mental wellbeing is like a rollercoaster. Some days you’re fine, others you’re not, it’s just learning how to nip it in the bud.”

According to Neil Greenberg, professor of defence mental health at King’s College London, having supportive and friendly colleagues can play a huge part in improving mental health in the workplace.

“There is a wealth of evidence showing that social support and camaraderie can help mental health,” he explains. “For those who are truly unwell, professional intervention can be important and even life-saving. However, when we are stressed most of us will benefit from a listening ear and some compassion.”

In hindsight, Gina believes her bosses simply didn’t know how to deal with her mental health problems. “I think initially they wanted to help, but because I wasn’t a quick-fix their patience ran thin,” she says.

“They had no experience of dealing with someone with mental health problems and didn’t handle it well. But maybe they also did me a favour because I know exactly the type of job and employer I don’t want. And now I’m more focused and driven to find a career that’s all-round good for me.”


To mark World Suicide Prevention Day tomorrow, The Sun is launching its You’re Not Alone campaign.

In the UK, someone attempts suicide every four minutes, while over 10 million of us have experienced suicidal thoughts, which is why we’re calling on you to learn the signs to look for – in others and yourself.


'My employer understands I need a day off for therapy'

Natasha Ward, 23, from Essex, is a barista. She says: “I’ve suffered from mental health issues for most of my life after a traumatic childhood.

"It meant my school attendance was really erratic, and I only managed to sit the first year of A levels before being hospitalised in a psychiatric ward for six months in March 2012. While I was there, I was diagnosed with complex PTSD, anxiety and depression, as well as borderline personality disorder, which means my moods and confidence levels constantly swing from really high to low.

"After my treatment finished I was able to go home, but at 16 I didn’t know what my future held. I didn’t feel confident enough to start studying all over again, so decided to try to get a job, even though I knew securing any sort of employment with very few qualifications would be equally hard.

"I applied for jobs in care homes, as they didn’t require any A levels to do them. But when I did land one in 2014, I found it stressful and overwhelming, even though I was taking antipsychotic medication. I only lasted a few weeks. From there I swung from one care home job to another, always quitting after a few months when the pressure got too much.

"Although my family knew what I was going through, I never felt comfortable enough to admit to my colleagues or bosses that I was suffering from mental health issues for fear of being judged or sacked. Instead, I’d make up an excuse about not feeling well, then stay awake all night with overwhelming guilt and anxiety triggered by the feeling I’d let people down, or I’d be buzzing, biting my nails and chain smoking. Everything just felt so hopeless.

"That was until October last year when I read about a social enterprise called 888 Collective, which helps employees and employers manage mental health in the workplace. I got in touch and they invited me to do some shifts at their offices, selling sandwiches – and that’s when my life began to turn around.

"On my first day I was so anxious, I wanted to just burst into tears and go home. But my boss sat me down and we talked for an hour about how I was feeling. I was completely honest, telling her how useless I felt, and at the end she told me she really believed in me. She assured me that in a year’s time I would be working full-time and off benefits. And she was right, as after doing a barista course in May this year, I landed a job the following month at a cafe.

"The best thing is my bosses and I are totally open about my mental health. They understand I can’t work on Mondays because I have therapy, and that there will be days when I may feel anxious.

"It’s just so refreshing not to feel judged. Since I joined, I’m no longer that scared girl who convinced herself she’d never be good enough. I’m ambitious and determined to work hard and one day open my own cafe.”


To mark World Suicide Prevention Day tomorrow, The Sun is launching its You’re Not Alone campaign.

In the UK, someone attempts suicide every four minutes, while over 10 million of us have experienced suicidal thoughts, which is why we’re calling on you to learn the signs to look for – in others and yourself.


  • Sources: Thriving At Work: The Stevenson/Farmer Review Of Mental Health And Employers,
  • For support, phone The Samaritans on 116 123 or visit

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