Workplace mental health : What employers should know

While attitudes towards employee health and wellbeing have improved significantly in recent years, there is still a lack of understanding and support for mental health issues in the modern workplace. We spend nearly 1/3rd of our lives on work, according to the WHO. It is highly imperative that organizations strive to create better work environments for employees.

Mental illnesses: A significant impact on global workforce productivity 

The World Health Organization conducted a study on mental illness in the workplace and one of the conclusions is that there is a global loss of 1 Trillion USD in productivity, due to a large number of the global workforce suffering from Depression and Anxiety related disorders. While the occurrence of depression and anxiety has deep personal impact, its impact in the workplace cannot be understated. There are a number of factors that can contribute to the rise or occurrence of instances of anxiety and depression in the workplace:

  • Relationship problems with superiors
  • Bureaucratic constraints
  • Work family conflict
  • Relationship problems with colleagues
  • Performance pressure
  • Poor job prospects

Unemployment is seen as a definitive risk factor for mental health problems, while securing or returning to work is seen as a protective factor. Ironically, due to the stigma attached to mental illnesses, there are often cases of discrimination against people that suffer from a mental illness, and they are unable to secure or retain employment in the work force. This in turn can exacerbate the mental illness. It is, therefore, important for organizations and their workplaces to institute policies that prevent the rise of mental illnesses and to protect those that suffer from them.

It is important to note, that although someone may be suffering from a mental illness, the symptoms shown at work can be quite different from other settings. Reasons for this can be employees’ fear of losing their job or managers’ inability to handle a situation where an employee presents themselves with a mental illness. Behaviors such as nervousness, restlessness or irritability are more common in the workplace. Symptoms of depression and anxiety can manifest in the form of physical complaints such as aches and pains. Employees become passive and non-productive, and also exhibit symptoms of fatigue as a result of sleeplessness that may arise due to depression and anxiety

Apart from a significant loss to the economy, a lack of initiatives that address mental health in the workplace can have indirect effects such as ‘increased rates of short-term disability, safety incidents, absenteeism and presenteeism (working while sick), underperformance and unrealized output, stress imposed on team members, overtime, and overstaffing to cover sick-day absences, and hiring costs related to recruitment and retention’, according to the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (JOEM). 

What can employers do? 

A study by the WHO estimated that for every 1$ USD spent on common mental disorders, there was a 4$ USD return in improved health and productivity.

  • Flexible hours - Can help maintain mental health and can benefit those suffering from mental disorders. When employees are given the flexibility to manage their own time, the sense of autonomy can be a protective factor against mental illness.
  • Job-redesign – Involves ensuring the right person performs the right job, to ensure maximum productivity. Job redesign is essentially about bridging the gap between the job and what the employee has to offer, thereby maintaining higher levels of productivity.
  • Addressing negative workplace dynamics - Office politics and negative workplace dynamics can contribute to a lowered sense of satisfaction at work, apart from a great deal of stress. Lowering these stresses can provide employees a more conducive atmosphere to perform their jobs.
  • Supportive and confidential communication with management - Can help people with mental disorders continue to or return to work.
  • Constructing a program for employees suffering from common mental health disorders.

Most importantly, encouraging employees to be open about their mental health can reduce the stigma attached to it, and thereby minimize its effects to a great extent.
In India, the most depressed country in the world, the scenario is disturbing, but not surprising: 42.5% of the workforce in the private sector suffer from a depression or anxiety related disorder. Given that India already battles with a significant amount of stigma attached to mental illness, it can be a long, arduous journey for sufferers to seek help, especially at the workplace. 
In case you, or anyone you know at your workplace is suffering from a mental illness, visit the foundation’s website to know more about depression and find help.

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