Mental Health at Workplace

Sudarsan Pathak

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), an estimated 264 million people suffer from depression globally. This is one of the leading causes of disability, with many of these people also suffering from symptoms of anxiety. A recent WHO-led study estimates that depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy US$ 1 trillion each year in lost productivity. Unemployment is a well-recognized risk factor for mental health problems while returning to, or getting work is protective. A toxic work environment may lead to physical and mental health problems, harmful use of substances or alcohol, absenteeism and lost productivity. According to WHO, workplaces that promote mental health awareness and provide support to people to avoid mental disorders are more likely to reduce absenteeism, increase productivity and benefit from associated economic gains.

The above statement from WHO signals how important it is to note and take necessary actions on mental health issues. Let’s discuss what mental health is and other factors related to it at the workplace.

Mental health is a state of well-being. This state will allow people to think freely and wisely, avoid or cope with stresses, work productively and contribute to his/her organization, family and community. Mental health goes alongside physical health. They both are very essential components of a person’s social wellbeing. Mostly, people appear to misunderstand mental health with some mental illness, but it may not exactly be like that. People can have poor mental health without having an illness or they can have good mental health with a mental illness. In today’s global scenario, above the organization, specific reasons global reasons like Covid and post-Covid trauma, economic recession, different international conflicts, natural disasters, and accidents contribute significantly to people being mentally unhealthy. Such factors add insult to an injury where people are already suffering from person-specific or organization-specific mental wellness issues. Further, it is very important to note that human mental health and human performance are not two separate pursuits, but they are two parts of the same equation and combined they are what make humans flourish.

Mental health at the workplace has already been one of the major agendas in western countries in the last few years. However, it is yet to be discussed more in Nepal. There are 2 factors involved in it. First, employees who have mental health issues themselves pretend to be fine or hesitate to report the issue. Second, organizations haven’t worked much on this as they appear to think this is a person-specific problem and organizations have no role to play in it. Both situations aren’t good from both individual as well as organizational perspectives. That will not only kill a person’s ability to perform but also degrade a workplace environment and productivity. People with positive mental health in the workplace are agile, can face difficulties, can find solutions, manage stress and deliver results. They can reach their highest potential.

Possible reasons and preventive measures for negative mental health reasons at work:

Inadequate or Inappropriate Health and Safety Policy
Health and safety policy in most Nepali organizations do not get as serious attention as it requires. It actually aims to protect employees and other stakeholders from workplace hazards which is very important but often neglected. However, organizations do not seem to have appropriate health and safety policies. Additionally, they also do not have a health and safety committee to keep themselves updated about the health and safety policies and their implementation. Such poor conditions may give employees anxiety, fear of performing, or inability to perform as per competencies which may lead to major workplace accidents. This will create a poor environment for the mental health of employees. There are industry-specific requirements where health and safety need to have first priority. Organizations should consider regular health consultation with their employees, check on their general physical and mental wellbeing, have policies to prevent workplace accidents, mechanisms to respond to safety concerns, and maintain a healthy environment (do not overcrowd the stations, have good air ventilation in the office spaces and have short refreshment breaks). They also must have a mechanism to take care if any of the above problems occur, unfortunately. To further add value, there must be a regular safety drill in case of fire or other natural disasters, a first aid kit and trained professionals, easy access to nearby hospitals, or a pool of blood donors in case of emergency. Hence, it will be great to have organizations with proper and adequate health and safety policies with new recruits mandatorily going through the proper briefing/drills of such guidelines and regular staffs to go through period refreshers classes and drills. This will allow people to work free of stress.

1. Poor Management Practices/Organizational Culture
Management practices are key to defining an organization’s culture. Organizational culture is key to an organization’s success. Good organizational culture is where both workers and managers actively contribute to the decision-making process and they all are equal stakeholders in protecting and promoting employees’ health, safety and overall wellbeing at the workplace. The credit of success claimed by limited executives, poor perks, no rewards and recognitions, lack of trust and flexibility, partial treatment among people, and lack of celebration/fun are some of the factors that create a poor organizational culture. People in such cultures find themselves always under pressure or disregarded. Their morale is down, and such conditions will create mental health stresses where people cannot flourish, and they may seek alternative opportunities. Hence, organizations have to create a cohesive organizational culture where everyone takes ownership and they feel they are valued. People should also be given a chance to learn, unlearn or relearn. Team play will be a key to defining where people feel it is fun to work.

2. Poor Communication/Limited Participation in Decision Making
Communication is key to success. I personally believe that any problem in the world has a solution but that has to be communicated to the right people and at the right time. Communication does not only solve problems, it additionally helps to prevent possible problems too. Many organizations in Nepal have top-to-bottom-only communication where the voices of the bottom go unheard. This will create a toxic environment where the middle and bottom-level employees do not take ownership of a decision and the organization may not achieve its organizational targets. Poor communication practice also stops the grievances from the bottom to reach the top or concerned official, it won’t help to communicate the organizational goals clearly to the team. A team without knowing the organizational goal sometimes turns into a crowd that will add problems rather than finding solutions. Such a situation is not a good state for mental health of employees. This will lead to confusion, panic and high employee turnover. Hence, there has to be an open communication policy where everyone can put forward their say without hesitation. Additionally, the communication from the top will have to reach the bottom without obstruction and vice versa.

3. Performance Pressure
A performance target without required support is an impossible war to win. In the current situation where there are external factors globally like the Covid-19 pandemic and post-Covid uncertainties, recession, inflation, and international conflicts, business targets become very stiff. However, to survive, an organization must meet its performance targets. Hence, to stay afloat every stakeholder must put a common effort to survive. Further, when the targets are already stiff, organizations should not only put pressure to hit the targets but also extend enough support to achieve the same. Performance pressure without support leads to frustration and stress which may lead to high attrition and bad work culture. On the other hand, organizations and their people need to understand that any target is achievable when the team is after it and they extend all possible support to each other. The team needs to have high motivation to achieve the unachievable. Such achievements will add further value to the team spirit and create a positive mental health condition.

4. Job Insecurity
Job insecurity is one of the biggest fears people can have. An employee may have many dependents which s/he has to support from his earnings. Her/his personal goals/happiness may depend on what they earn and any halt on the regular income will lead to their personal life imbalance. Further, many of them may have personal financial/banking obligations which may not have any consideration regardless of their employment status. Plus, as discussed in the previous point, high-performance pressure without motivation also makes people feel unsecured about their job. An employee with job insecurity in their mind is stressed and cannot perform to their competencies. This is a poor condition for mental health and will have a serious impact on personal as well as organizational goals. This is why organizations will have to make people feel safe about their jobs and make them feel the organization is alongside them.

Here we discussed some reasons for poor mental health conditions at work and the action organizations should take to prevent the same. Additionally, organizations should also extend all possible support (including medical support or any other) to their people if they are already going through a negative stage of mental health. People should also not hesitate to share their mental health problems. The mental health issue is not an illness, it can heal sometimes only even if their voices or problems are heard. Both the people and the organization will have to play an equal part to create an environment that caters to good mental health conditions in the workplace.

Pathak is Senior Manager-Human Resources at IME Motors Ashok Leyland Nepal.

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