Promoting good mental health in the workplace is one of the most important things an employer can do to improve their organisation and boost their business. The way employees feel, think and act impacts on their productivity, their communication and on their ability to maintain safety at the workplace. With mental illnesses (such as major depressive disorders and anxiety disorders) being a leading cause of non-permanent disability worldwide, the promotion of good mental health in the workplace is now recognized as a global priority.
A large proportion of our adult lives is spent at work, and the experiences we make in the workplace significantly contribute to our overall health and wellbeing. Research shows that work is generally good for health. As well as financial reward, work provides many of us with a sense of identity, social contact and support, increased self-esteem and social status. However, a negative work environment can lead to physical and mental ill health, harmful use of substances and/or alcohol, and lost productivity.
Globally, more than 300 million people suffer from depression, and more than 260 million people are living with an anxiety disorders. In Nigeria, estimates by the WHO-AIMS Report (2006) suggest that 7,079,815 million Nigerians suffer from depression (that is 4% of the population) and 4,894,557 million Nigerians suffer from an anxiety disorders (that is 2.7% of the population). Depression, anxiety disorders, and other mental illnesses can cost employers a lot of money. In fact, a recent WHO led study estimated that depression and anxiety disorders alone cost the global economy US$ 1 trillion each year in lost productivity. Specific estimates for Nigeria are yet unknown.
On the other hand, organizations and employers who put in place workplace initiatives that promote good mental health, and support employees who have mental health difficulties, see gains in their productivity at work, and available cost-benefit research on strategies to address mental health points towards net benefits. A recent study estimated that for every USD $1 put into scaled up treatment for common mental illnesses, there is a return of USD $4 in improved health and productivity.
Of course, the reasons for promoting good mental health go beyond an organization’s expenditure. Supporting employees in feeling their best also reduces suffering on an individual level and therefore serves as a win-win situation for everyone. Despite the multitude of benefits of promoting good mental health, most workplaces in Nigeria do very little to prevent mental ill health or to address emotional wellbeing.
Here are three ways in which employers can promote good mental health in the workplace:
Create a healthy environment
While biology is certainly a factor in the development of mental illness, the environment also plays a large role. It’s important for employers to take a look at the lifestyle they’re promoting among their employees. Expecting employees to work 80+ hours a week or insisting people respond to work-related email from home are just a few of the things that can interfere with an employee’s ability to build a natural buffer against work-related stress.
Since most people spend approximately one-third of their time at work, it is important to ensure the workplace is taking steps to promote good health. A few simple ways to foster a healthy environment include encouraging exercise, allowing for breaks where employees can socialize, and offering stress reduction workshops. Hiring a mental health professional to teach mindfulness or offering free access to a yoga class are just a few creative ways to boost mental strength and develop resilience to mental ill health.
Help employees identify mental health risks
Approximately one in four adults will experience a mental illness in any given year. Yet, many of them suffer in silence. Some people fail to recognize they’re experiencing a mental health issue. Instead, they may associate their symptoms with ageing or assume that their problems are just a normal part of stress. Helping employees recognize their risk factors and symptoms is one of the simplest yet most effective ways for employers to help.
There are several ways in which organizations can allow employees to access confidential mental health screenings. One way is to invite a mental health professional into the organization to provide free screenings. If this screening reveals a high likelihood to mental health difficulties, they can be referred for a complete assessment. Screenings can be completed in complete privacy and employees can be given immediate feedback about their results, as well as information and support in accessing services.
Assist employees in addressing mental ill health
Mental illness is very treatable, so it’s essential that employees are supported in their attempts to seek help. Allowing an employee to attend weekly therapy appointments during business hours or with an in-house therapist could prevent that employee from having to go on sick leave due to serious depression. Creating policies that support emotional wellbeing and treatment can ensure that employees are able to perform at their best.
While most employers would never step over an employee suffering a serious physical health problem (such as a stroke or a heart attack), employees who are clearly experiencing a mental health problem are often ignored. Unfortunately, ignoring mental health only furthers the stigma. Educating managers on how to address employee mental health can ensure that employees feel safe to talk about their concerns and it will increase the likelihood that they’ll access available resources.
Dr Ukwuori-Gisela Kalu is a Clinical Psychologist who is passionate about Mental Health promotion and intervention in Nigeria. She works as a Consultant Clinical Psychologist in Private Practice in both Lagos and Abuja.