Caring for the mental health of employees

Mental health is an issue that over the years has gained little recognition, mainly because of the stigma and misconceptions commonly attached to it in many African Countries. Studies have also shown that the mental health of workers is often neglected and underscored with more focus on their physical health problems. In Africa, the burden of mental illnesses among workers is also often under-reported due to the stigma. There is also a risk of the potential loss of job if their co-workers or managers become aware. Despite the little focus given to mental health issues, a report from the Lancet found that between 2000 and 2015, there was a 52% increase in years lost to disability due to mental health and substance use in Africa. Mental health does not mean the state of having mental illnesses alone; it also refers to a state of well-being which allows individuals realize their potential, cope with the normal stresses of life, work productively and make contributions to their community. Thus any individual who has mental health problems may find it challenging to cope with the normal stress of work-life and may not be able to deal with the demands of their daily work, activities and targets. Work is generally a known protective factor for mental health compared to a state of being unemployed. However, it can also serve as a deterrent to workers health if working conditions are poor. Someone once said, ‘if your shoes are too small, they can hurt your feet’; if the workplace environment and culture is poor, employee mental health can be harmed. So why do employers and employees need to pay attention to ensuring that workplaces promote good mental health? The poor mental health of workers can lead to increased absenteeism, work errors, loss in productivity, increased staff burn out, increased risk of physical illnesses, level of conflicts between co-workers and poor worker attitudes to business customers. Globally, depression and anxiety account for the US $1 trillion loss in productivity according to the World Health Organization. Every aspect of the work environment can affect workers mental health. For example, poor fit and training for the type of work, lack of healthy workplace policies, poor management and organization practices, lack of control over working conditions, activities and working hours. The goal of every employer should, therefore, be to create an environment in which its workers can work productively without sacrificing their emotional and psychological well-being. However, the duty of care to safeguard workers health also applies to workers; each employee also has a responsibility to protect his/her health, as well as contribute to the improved mental health of fellow workers.The key to promoting a healthy workplace is by prevention of workplace factors that can lead to mental health issues, early detection of mental illness among workers, referral for appropriate care, provision of support to employees and providing an enabling environment for workers with history of mental illness to continue work or return to work after seeking care. To reduce workplace stressors, employers and workplaces need to have a healthy workplace policy that provides a framework that shows commitment towards workers well-being particularly promoting their mental health, as well as strategies on implementing the goals of the organization in a way that harm is either reduced or eliminated from the work environment. Workers who work in emergencies such as health responders, firefighters and the armed forces are at a higher risk of mental health issues due to the nature of their work. It is essential that policies for these groups address identified precipitators such as long hours at work, inadequate training, lack of adequate resources, and commit to improving working conditions for them. Surveys and interviews can be done by management to identify psychosocial stressors that need to be addressed. Regarding early detection of mental illness among workers, there is a need for training of managerial staff and all employees on the symptoms of mental illness and stressful conditions which could range from memory lapses to being frequently anxious, having panic attacks, sweating profusely to being withdrawn; though this list is not exhaustive. The training helps both the employees themselves and other co-workers to identify suspected states of ill mental health and seek help. Also, access to support and occupational health services with mental health specialists is essential for care. No worker should face workplace stigma for having a mental illness and workers need to know that their work will not be lost if they get treatment. Studies have shown that when workers get adequate treatment for mental illnesses, it leads to increased gains in productivity and improved overall health. Individuals also have a responsibility to protect and improve their mental health. Just as there are healthy habits that promote physical health, there are factors within the control of the worker that can improve their mental health status. Regular physical exercise and healthy diets are essential for good mental health. Engaging in social activities, practicing taking frequent breaks at work and having a sound support system that one can open up to and talk about one’s feelings are beneficial.In conclusion, promoting mental health in the workplace is the duty of everyone has numerous benefits for the business, culture, processes and productivity. It also ensures that workers are emotionally and psychologically well while carrying out their duties. ReferencesSankoh O, Sevalie S, Weston M. Mental health in Africa. The Lancet. Global health. 2018 Sep;6(9):e954.

World Health Organization. Mental health in the workplace, Information Sheet. May 2019
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