Work is one major area of any man’s life, such that it is of great major mental health concern. The better part of any man’s active life is spent at work.
The work a person does invariably confers on the individual his social and economic status in life, which, in turn, impacts his lifestyle that may invariably determine his physical and mental health.
Most employers, especially in the developed countries, know that a mentally healthy workforce is linked to lower medical costs as well as less absenteeism. They also know that a mentally unhealthy workforce is associated with increased loss of productivity. Therefore, investing in a mentally healthy workforce is good business. It can lower total medical costs, increase productivity and decrease disability costs.
Businesses that have been slow to invest in the mental health of their employees may have misconceptions about the cost effectiveness of investing in a mental health programme, lack of information about the direct and indirect costs of mental illness in the workplace and a general reservation about all things related to mental health and mental illness.
Investing in workplace mental health is a win-win strategy for both employers and employees. In the developed countries where statistics exists, it is estimated that the prevalence of mental illness, especially those due to substance abuse in any given year, approaches about 25 per cent, with an annual indirect cost for employers estimated at $80bn to $100bn.
More workers are absent from work because of stress and anxiety than because of physical illness or injury. Stress and depression probably explains close to 30 per cent of the total risk of heart attacks. In one large manufacturing corporation in the U.S., depression accounted for at least as much medical and disability costs as hypertension, diabetes, back problems and heart disease and mental illness.
Short-term disability claims are growing by 10 per cent annually and can account for 30 per cent or more of the corporate disability experience of the typical employer. However, in spite of the high prevalence of mental illness, especially substance abuse among the working population, most will never receive treatment.
Unfortunately, only 12.7 per cent of those who need treatment get treated and majority receives inadequate care. This should be of grave concern to employers because for every untreated or inappropriately treated employee with a mental illness, it costs them more as employers often end up paying more.
Apart from direct costs, absenteeism, reduced productivity while at work (presenteeism), disability, increased compensation claims, and other safety issues, employee turnover has even greater negative impact on the employers’ bottom line.
The reality of the mental health challenges in the workplace is strong. Having a mental illness does not mean you are worried about tomorrow’s meeting, feeling extremely unhappy for a while when you missed out on a big promotion, or sad when you lost a colleague. It is usually a persistent and possibly sustained, often disabling, psychological experience that could take different forms.
Depression, anxiety disorders, and substance abuse are, by far, the most common mental illness in the workplace. Folks with depression and anxiety disorders in the workplace often ‘self-medicate’ with alcohol and other substances which only compounds the problem of mental illness in the workplace.
Organisations should have a specific policy on workplace prevention of mental health problems which should be systematically implemented, covering the following: the development of a positive work environment that supports and encourages mental health, balancing job demands with job control, appropriately rewarding employees’ efforts, creating a safe workplace, provision of workplace support, effective management of performance issues, provision of training to develop management and leadership skills, supportive change management processes, development of mental health and well-being policy and of mental health education.
The mental health and wellbeing strategy should be supported by a detailed implementation plan covering timing, content, strategies, monitoring and evaluation. The strategy should be implemented so that it includes all employees within the organisation, regardless of employment status, physical location or work hours. It should recognise the needs, preferences and attitudes of different groups of employees.
Organisations may need to engage the services of external consultants to carry out a needs assessment, evaluation of employees, professional coaching of leadership to develop a positive and mentally healthy work environment. This empowers the leader to be a good role model in the workplace, taking action to support employee mental health through frequent and effective communication strategies and creating a supportive culture ensuring manageable workloads.
The Nigerian situation is a peculiar one because of unwholesome working situations in both the private and public corporations. The public sector is essentially chaotic, enmeshed in nepotism and corruption without consistent and fair corporate governance. The private sector is essentially feudalistic, as employees are put under unrealistic demands, with grave consequences for their mental health needs.