Mental Health and Employment

By Zoya Imam

“How do I tell my manager that I need to leave early once a week to see my therapist? He may consider me to be less competent, or even unreliable.” Such fears are well-founded; society continues to stereotype those struggling with mental health as incapable or even dangerous in some cases. Given the prevalence of mental illnesses, it is not surprising that even within the work environment, at least 13.3 per cent of employees below the age of 25 have depression, 3.8 per cent of employees aged over 55 have depression, and at least 1 in 4 people experience some kind of mental health problem in any given year. For men specifically, 37 per cent may deal with anxiety or depression, yet their partners and relatives are unaware of it. Globally, 67 per cent of employees feel scared, embarrassed or unable to talk about mental health concerns with their employers. This number is likely to be much higher in Pakistan.

We need to remember that our health is important. It is a unanimous opinion that looking after employees’ health makes a business more successful. And hence, most organizations offer health insurance to ensure that they are protecting their staff’s physical health. Despite companies understanding, and taking necessary measures to protect physical well-being, there has been little effort to give mental health the same importance.

Our understanding of the malfunctioning mind lags far behind that of physical illnesses. In the genomic age, neuroscience remains almost medieval and mental health research is underfunded. Services for mental health are also stunted due to Pakistan’s budget allocations – only 2.4 per cent of the country’s annual expenditure goes towards health, of which only 2 per cent is put aside for mental health. We are seeing more and more life insurance claims resulting from suicides everywhere in the world. What we need to remember is that mental illnesses do not differentiate based on an individual’s status, wealth or age.

Almost a quarter of Americans suffer from a mental illness every year. This total adds up to over USD 105 billion a year in lost productivity (in the U.S. alone), according to the National Council of Behavioral Health, and stands at GBP 42 billion a year for UK employers, according to a report published by Deloitte in 2017. The World Health Organization estimates that by 2030, the world will lose 12 billion workdays to depression and anxiety alone if treatment does not improve.

Alison Pay, the managing director of Mental Health at Work says “it’s amazing what can be achieved with a change of attitude. A lot of bosses wouldn’t think twice about allowing someone to work from home if they have a broken leg. Making the same accommodation for someone struggling with anxiety goes a really long way towards helping them manage their symptoms.”

Organizations globally marked October’s World Mental Health Day by handing pamphlets and green ribbons, and arranging for relevant workshops and seminars, but the journey only begins here. Organizations have a long way to go from simply claiming to support mental health to actually doing so in practice. What employers need to keep in mind is that a strong mental health program also helps recruit top talent, as it demonstrates the organization’s priorities of putting their employees first. Helping staff members improve their mental health also works to foster goodwill towards the company. This goodwill, in turn, decreases the chances of employees being dissatisfied and looking for new opportunities. Research has frequently documented instances where if someone with depression, anxiety or stress feels trusted by their manager, they are often more productive in their jobs.

Organizations must start incorporating mental health and well-being into their priorities. A few steps they can take are as follows:

  • Understand the subject and the ensuing problem, and acknowledge that it exists.
  • Understand the company culture, and identify how programs can be shaped to ensure that employees respond to mental health initiatives.
  • Educate employees about mental health. Create an awareness program, host a speaker, and organize meetings. Many people, even those suffering from anxiety or depression, don’t quite understand what mental illness is, and how it can affect them on the job. Employee education helps to increase awareness of potential mental health issues affecting co-workers and even themselves. Education can also contribute to removing the stigma most people have around mental illness.
  • Help your managers to help your staff. Line managers are absolutely pivotal as they are usually the ones responsible for dealing with mental health in the workforce on a day-to-day basis. However, many lack the confidence or experience to manage this alone. What managers need to remember is that they are not expected to become experts in mental health, instead they are there to flag problems, communicate without judgment, offer support and signpost available resources.
  • Actively encourage employees to seek and receive treatment for any mental illness. Provide them with support. Support can be by altering their roles and responsibilities, changing their work environment (flexible hours being one example), or monitoring and managing workloads. It is important for managers to be respectful of these choices, if they choose to grant such flexibility.
  • Collect data such as absenteeism, job satisfaction and productivity through employee questionnaires and surveys. Having concrete, measurable data will assist the organization in strategically planning and implementing a needs-based approach to mental health. On the whole, an effective mental health and well-being strategy considers prevention, intervention and protection.