Mental health is essential in determining how we cope and manage our day-to-day life. The workplace is the most important environment for discussing mental health, just by mere association of how much time an (adult) individual spends there, yet it is the last place we expect to hear about it. Employees are often silenced from discussing it with their co-workers due to associated stigmas: for fear of damaging relationships, losing their jobs or risking future employment opportunities. An estimated 54 per cent of Pakistan’s population participate in our labour force, yet the workplace is often a neglected setting for focused prevention and awareness efforts for mental health. By addressing it at the workplace, mental illnesses and psychological distress and disorders can be better identified, addressed and mitigated.

From an individual perspective, verbal abuse by supervisors, sexual harassment, unsafe work environments, delayed payments of salaries, inadequate compensation and disproportional workloads all add to the levels of stress and individual may face at the workplace. This relationship is such that while stress levels contribute to negative mental wellbeing, the same compromise on mental health then perpetuates higher levels of stress.

From a business aspect, one-third of mental health cost burdens are related to productivity losses, including employee retention rates, economic costs stemming from the loss of work days and societal costs related to unemployment. Despite this, global reports indicate that up to 85 per cent of employees have mental health conditions that are either undiagnosed, untreated or unreported. Indirect costs include under performance, unrealized output and overstaffing to compensate for sick-day absences.

The spillover effect of mental illness on business performance is indisputable; yet businesses in Pakistan have yet to invest in mental health as a consistent and non-negotiable part of their in-house policies, office culture and responsibility towards employee well being. Mental health and well being are not seen as a priority. Historically, actions taken to improve the management of, and support for employees is taken only following a specific mental health related incident within the confines of the organization. Approaches to mental health are therefore a lot more reactive than proactive or preventative in nature.

Employers should provide information and resources about the signs and symptoms of common mental health conditions, positive coping strategies and counselling services provided either in-house or easily accessible to staff. It is also important to ensure that staff members are aware of their roles and responsibilities and doing their part to maintain a healthy environment in the workplace.

Larger corporations should ensure that their Human Resources team considers a range of factors which may affect the mental health and safety of employees, including organizational factors (clarification of roles and greater supervisor support, anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies); operational factors (allowing flexibility where possible, regarding work hours and deadlines, and instigating fair overtime policies); environmental factors (such as unpleasant, or dangerous physical conditions at the workplace, including noise or air pollution); and individual factors of employees, such as high conflicting demands between work and personal life.

Employees tend to be faced with several dilemmas before deciding whether or not they are open with their employers about mental health concerns. For one, in cases when they require to take a day off, they typically are asked file for a ‘sick leave’ and, depending on the stringency of policies, they may need to provide evidence or specify a physical illness or ailment to justify said leave. They may also refrain from seeking treatment due to the possibility of appointments being during work hours, and the fear of being stigmatized if communicated to supervisors.

Instead, employees should be given the option to take leaves as ‘mental health days’ and provided with an environment which makes them comfortable and encouraged to opt for this option when necessary. Provide flexibility in work hours to accommodate for employees weekly or monthly sessions with mental health practitioners. And most importantly, there should be a zero-tolerance policy for discrimination against staff members battling mental health conditions. In attempt to combat stigma in the work place, employers should hold workshops or ‘mental health days’ and invite those with personal experiences of recovery and management of mental illnesses to share their stories. Managers and supervisors should be encouraged to not only speak only about mental health but to actively endorse their team members to participate in relevant activities.

Mental health and well being should be prioritized above performance expectations, as not doing so would have far-reaching consequences from an individual, business and societal standpoint. The high return on investment for mental health strategies should pose as an incentive for organizations to start prioritizing the well being of their employees.

Published in the Daily Times on 30 September 2018