Should We Talk About Mental Health In The Workplace?

Tunde and Musa work in a Department where the new Head (Mr. Ojo) is always screaming at everybody and insulting staff for any and every offense you can imagine. If he meets you standing, you are in trouble. If he meets you sitting down and not appearing busy, you are very lazy and indolent. If you ask him for clarifications regarding assigned tasks, it means you are too stupid to use your own brain. ‘Or do you want me to come and do your work for you?’ ‘What am I paying you a salary for?’ He would scream.

Everyone now lives in terror and becomes anxious when they have to come to work every day. When he travels on official assignments, there is a collective sense of palpable relief and everyone is able to relax.

Indeed, Tunde is contemplating resigning from the office and starting a business on his own. ‘It will be better for my peace of mind’, he told Musa. ‘I cannot continue to function in such a tense atmosphere again’. I am even developing hypertension. And when I get home every day, I am so irritable that I sometimes shout at my wife and children. I have had enough, and I can’t take any more.’ He concluded.

The World Health Organization defines health as a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not just the absence of disease or infirmity. But these three components of health are not mutually exclusive. They are interdependent. Thus, physical health problems such as a diagnosis of cancer may result in depression (mental ill-health). And similarly, a social problem such as a hostile work environment may cause hypertension (physical) or anxiety and depression (mental). However, the mental and social components of health are often neglected and downplayed.

There is a bi-directional relationship between the mental health of the employees and the efficiency or productivity of the workplace/organization. We know that 1 in every 4 adults will have mental health challenges at some point in their lifetime, whereas 20% of all employees in the workforce may be experiencing a mental health condition. So, it is not an unusual problem for people to have mental health challenges at the workplace.

But I have been working for several years and I don’t know anyone in my office with a mental health problem, right? Wrong. It is often hidden and viewed as a source of embarrassment and shame…unfortunately so. This may be the reason why you may not be aware of anyone with mental health issues in your workplace. Estimates show that up to 70% of those with mental health problems hide it in their workplace for a variety of reasons. There is shame and fear of being stigmatized, but there is also the real fear that they may lose their jobs or fail to ever secure one if it is known that they have had a mental health challenge.

Work environment and mental health:
A good work environment enables people to realize their full potential, helps them to cope with the normal stresses of life, to work productively, and to contribute to their communities. In such work environments, staff enjoy good self-esteem, they have positive social interactions with colleagues and their productivity is enhanced. Thus, it is a win-win situation that allows a happy employee to also improve earnings thus leading to a happy employer.

A toxic work environment, as we see with Tunde and Musa above, on the other hand, is very unfriendly, enforces rigid working hours, has poor remuneration with irregular salary payments, no job security, high levels of mutual suspiciousness, and bullying behavior from superiors – sometimes including sexual harassment. These conditions ensure that the staff will not be motivated to put in their best.

What can you do?
We all need to raise awareness about mental health in the workplace and its effect on productivity. Even more importantly, we need to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness and encourage people to seek treatment.

We should provide support and encouragement for persons with these challenges, and never make fun of them publicly or behind their backs.

Every work environment should make efforts to reduce work-related risk factors. Speak nicely to people and promote good interpersonal relationships. Don’t make a habit of insulting, harassing or threatening people, in your workplace. Recognize and praise people when they do things well, and correct them in a humane manner, when they err. We all have a role to play in our respective workplaces. Because we can all do better.

It will also be helpful if workplaces put in place, an employee assistance programme (EAP) that serves as a safety net for all staff to access confidential and professional mental health support services as may be needed.

Written By:

Dr Jibril Abdulmalik

Psychiatrist and Founder, Asido Foundation

Managing Partner, Asivuri Consulting

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