The thought of starting another busy work year must have been heavy on the minds of some as 2018 began. But how can managers respond to mental health issues in the workplace?
– By Dr. Anne Mbonu
Mental health problems are often hidden in plain sight, like an open secret. They are the proverbial elephant in the room. No one really wants to talk about mental health and we’d like to pretend that it’s not an issue but it is and we must acknowledge it, because the consequences of not doing so are potentially devastating to individuals and to those close to them.
What Is Mental Health?
Let’s begin at the beginning. The World Health Organization defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community”.
Mental health therefore, is not simply the absence of mental illness, but rather the status of being psychologically, emotionally and behaviourally well adjusted. This would enable people to achieve a satisfactory level of social functioning, to develop and maintain meaningful and positive relationships at home, at work and at play.
In short, mental health is the capacity to live a full and productive life and to enjoy that life. In order to accomplish this, you have to be able to interact with other people in a way that is mutually beneficial. After all, no man is an island, and relationships are the cornerstone of successful living.
By extension, mental illness being the absence of mental health, could manifest as the lack of a clear personal identity, limited psychological and emotional resilience and poor social functioning. This often culminates in the inability to successfully accomplish the usual activities of daily living such as sustaining meaningful relationships, coping with the usual stresses of life, producing good quality work, having a good opinion of yourself and fulfilling your potential.
The image of mental illness that people usually conjure up in their minds is that of a person experiencing a full blown psychotic episode. However, other mental health problems such as stress, anxiety, mood disorders, personality disorders, suicidal ideation and addiction are far more pervasive and chronic, leading to a lasting impact on people’s lives.
The stigma surrounding mental health makes it difficult for people to come forward and seek help or treatment. Access to diagnosis and treatment is only very slowly improving and both employers and the government need to work together to improve access to diagnosis and treatment.
Poor mental health and well-being in the workplace negatively impacts on productivity. Chronic stress due to high workloads and time pressures is probably the commonest problem encountered in the workplace, and this stress often leads to burn out. Other common problems are angry outbursts, misplaced aggression, and low self-esteem as a result of failing to meet personal and organisational goals. Once the vicious cycle is initiated, it can become self-sustaining, leading to a steady, inexorable decline in performance.
Quality of Work
In the workplace, declining mental health and well-being can manifest as sub-standard quality of work, poor judgement and decision making, frayed tempers leading to excessive conflict between colleagues and ultimately, high staff turnover. Affected individuals cannot produce their best work, therefore businesses suffer revenue losses.
It is challenging to accurately compute how many hours of work are lost due to mental health related problems, but it certainly runs into millions. Although no specific local data exists, it is clear that a significant percentage of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is lost as a result.
How to Improve Mental Health In The Workplace
Quite obviously, this is a mammoth challenge so the approach to tackling it must be multi-pronged.
- Create Awareness
Firstly, it is critical for everyone to be made aware of what constitutes a mental health problem, and what the common manifestations are. This will enable affected persons and those close to them to acknowledge and recognise what they are going through, and hopefully seek help.
Too often, people soldier on in adverse conditions for fear of being labelled weak, soft, attention-seeking, or worst of all, crazy. But this approach is counterproductive because it inevitably leads to unpalatable outcomes that could have been otherwise avoided.
To promote awareness, corporate organisations can and should have policies that promote mental health and well-being in the work place, and put in procedures for dealing with mental health issues. Managers and others in a supervisory capacity should be trained to recognise and act upon early warning signs that people are not coping such as repeatedly turning up late for work, disappearing for unaccounted periods of time during the working day, not delivering pieces of work on time or having inappropriate altercations with colleagues and managers.
- Appoint a Mental Health Champion
Another approach would be to have a designated mental health champion within the organisation’s ranks, whose primary role would be to generate communications about mental health and well-being such as bulletins pinned to prominently placed notice boards, informational emails, staff awareness workshops, and if possible, ring fenced time for people to come and discuss their issues with the mental health champion in a dedicated space.
It would not be excessive for the organisation to recruit or retain the services of a trained mental health professional. Giving the problem an acceptable human face can encourage people to come forward, and hopefully help to destigmatize mental health issues.
Information about getting enough sleep, healthy eating and exercise should be regularly disseminated and reinforced as these promote psychological resilience. Organisations could also put procedures in place for staff to take a reasonable break during working hours.
It would be desirable for corporations to collaborate with governmental and non-governmental agencies to create “mental well-being at work” campaigns.
Of course, this must be within the context of the broader government responsibility to deliver mental health services for the entire population.
To the extent that organisations want to maximise their productivity, they must also recognise that their workforce is their key resource, and should therefore develop an approach which emphasizes a good work life balance and personnel development, as opposed to the prevalent ultra-competitive approach that drives employees to work as many hours as possible, and favours short term delivery over long term strategic objectives.
It is well known that employees that feel well supported by the management team produce higher quality work, have higher job satisfaction rates and are more loyal to the organisation, which culminates in better staff retention.
- Educate Yourself
Entrepreneurs and the self-employed are a class apart – they are the employee and they are the corporation. Therefore it behoves them to have a higher level of personal responsibility for their own mental wellbeing. They have the advantage of setting their own hours, workload and delivery timescales, juxtaposed with the challenge of having to manage their responsibilities without any external assistance, guidance or compulsion.
For this group of people, the internet is an important ally, being an almost unlimited source of information. If you’re in such a group, you should proactively educate yourself about mental health and well-being, and endeavour not to sacrifice your mental health and well-being on the altar of success. It is even more important to maintain a good work-life balance, since it is all too easy for your quest to accomplish your vision to consume and overwhelm you.
- Join a Support Network
It is critical that entrepreneurs and self-employed people form support networks, actively initiating and maintaining contact with relevant professionals and partners, to avoid isolation which can reinforce negative and unhelpful patterns. This should serve them well when their businesses grow as they can pass on their learning to future employees, thereby further increasing their chances for business success.
The key point to take away is that mental health and well-being in the workplace is a critically important prerequisite to organisational success. Historically, mental health has been a taboo subject, but the winds of change have begun to blow, and optimism is warranted.
While we wait for organisations and the government to implement strategic policies and programmes to improve population mental health, you should take personal responsibility to educate and protect yourself, and to seek help from the appropriate quarters wherever possible.
More on mental health? Send us your questions.
Dr. Anne Mbonu MBBS MSc International Health Management (distinction) is an accomplished health care professional with almost 20 years of clinical and management experience within the health sector. She honed her skills in the medical specialty of Psychiatry, and completed her Master’s degree in International Health Management with distinction at the Imperial College Business School, London. She is very passionate about improving health and well being in the community, and is registered with the Nigerian Medical and Dental Council as well as the U.K General Medical Council.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the Spark Magazine. Find the Magazine here to read more articles.