The Workplace and Mental Health

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The driving force of every organization are the employees; the people that put in the time, day in and out to ensure the productivity and progress of the organization. Lengths are taken to ensure that organizations get the crème de la crème during interview selection processes to build the team that will foster the goals of the organization. This translates to the fact that the productivity of the organization is dependent on the employee, thus the wellbeing of the employee is paramount to the success of the organization. It is practice for most organizations to have good staff welfare packages that act to support the employee, on the other hand however, most organizations do not bear the importance of the wellbeing of the staff to mind. From the individual’s point, we can get so caught up in trying to meet deadlines that we forget to stop and take care of the machine (our body). The bulk of our adult years are spent in the work place, in our bid to be financially and economically stable thus it comes as no surprise that the workplace plays a crucial role in our life.

The process of achieving this stability can be very rewarding and tasking but our health (physically and mentally) benefits from engaging in work. However when the work environment is negative or produces negative responses, for example when there is harassment or bullying, our health suffers. This commonly leads to absenteeism, reduced productivity, harmful use of illicit and licit substance, and for some poor mental health. The World Health Organization defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community”. This means a poor mental health impacts on our behaviour, thoughts and emotions thereby hampering our abilities to add value to the society.

The presentation of a poor mental health (mental illness) can be masked in the work place and tends to be overlooked by organizations. Some mental health challenges include depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, psychosis, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), eating disorders, and alcohol or drug abuse. Data on Nigerians experiencing poor mental health is lacking however, Oyewunmi in her 2015 article on Mental health and the Nigerian workplace: Fallacies, facts and the way forward reported that about 64 million Nigerians suffer from a form of mental poor health. The presentation of a poor mental health goes beyond the “mad man” we see on the street or the portrayal of poor mental health in the movies. Though they are extreme examples of a poor mental health, when we have difficulties in taking care of our minds, chances are that we are struggling with our mental health. These mental health challenges can manifest in the work place in forms of poor performance, increased and unexplained absence or leaves, poor time keeping, social withdrawal and isolation, poor judgment, regular fatigue or low energy, increased use in alcohol or drugs, unusual display of emotions (irritability or crying), undue suspicions, and hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting or feeling things in the absence of a stimulus.

It is important to recognize that the presence of stress in the work place does not necessarily mean that the employee will develop a mental health challenge. Though severe stress can lead to a poor mental health, stress is the body’s way of responding to a perceived external or internal force. This system is a survival technique that prepares us to address the presenting issue at hand or run away from it. When stress is not properly managed, it can adversely affect the mind and body. At some point in our lives, we all feel under pressure but manage to rise above it. This cannot be said for everyone; we all know one or two colleagues who do not function well under stress and we know others who do. This is to say that one person’s drive to action can be another one’s nightmare and lead to a breakdown. The individual’s ability to function under stress is usually linked to other activities happening in their life but the key here is learning to properly manage stress.

The stigma associated with mental health challenges makes it even harder for people to talk about it, for most Nigerians, the term mental illness connotes “madness”; a taboo and socially unacceptable behaviour. In addition to this, most people go as far as associating mental illness with having some spiritual undertone. For others, they believe that people suffering from any form of mental illness are a menace and danger to the society. These beliefs about mental illness are inaccurate and lend itself to the stigmatization of people who have mental illness and subsequently, impact on the desire to seek treatment. In the work place, the fear of losing one’s job given the current economic state of the nation is a hindrance to receiving proper care.

Though the mental ill state of an employee may go unrecognized, the irony is that is has a more damaging effect on the person’s health and career. Treatment does go a long way to improve the health of the employee and productivity in the workplace but it is possible when we change our attitude towards mental illness.

The truth remains that all mental health challenges can be treated by psychotherapy (talk therapy), support from family, mental health practitioners, and family, and the use of medications. In the workplace, encouraging a mentally healthy workforce starts with creating a healthy workplace that recognizes and appreciates the employee, reduces work place risk factors, recognizes the need to develop a healthy work-life balance, trains and highlights the strengths of the staff, makes provision for mental health and stress management resources, and encourages a general healthy lifestyle.

If you or anyone you know is affected by the topic discussed in this piece, please contact Chinyereugo Udensi, a Clinical psychologist for support or guidance.