OP-ED: Fostering Good Mental Health in the Workplace

Ask an employer or a hiring manager if they will employ a person with a mental health illness and the response will be quite discouraging, even though the manager may be silently suffering from mental health issues themselves.

In Liberia, we consider people with mental illnesses ‘crazy’ and unfit to work, and we often stigmatize them in their communities, at work, and in other social gatherings. But we all have mental issues that we fail to recognize or fail to seek support for, and it keeps piling up to make the workplace more toxic.

On average, half of the world’s population lives in nations where there is only one or no psychiatrist to serve 200,000 or more people. And in these places, poverty is high, and people are suffering from other illnesses, which can even generate and worsen mental health problems. The people in these places might also have lived through civil wars or other natural disasters.

Here in Liberia, we have had civil wars, family and personal issues, and unemployment issues – all of which are stockpiling to our mental health issues.

According to the World Health Organization, Liberia is estimated to have over 400,000 people with some form of mental disorder and about 130,000 people with unembellished mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Additionally, one in five Liberian suffers from a mild to moderate mental disorder, yet employers and the government are paying no attention to this emerging disaster.

The way employees think, feel, and behave can impact everything from productivity to communication. Promoting good mental health in the workplace could be one of the most important steps an employer could take to improve an organization.

Depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues can cost employers a lot of money. Those issues can result in absenteeism, decreased productivity, and increased healthcare expenses if not managed.

The lesson we all can learn from this is that employers and human resource departments should strive to improve working environments by helping employees deal with the issues. Although biology is a large factor in the development of mental illnesses, the environment also plays a major role.

It’s important for employers to take a look at the lifestyle they’re promoting among workers. Expecting employees to work very long hours or insisting people respond to work-related emails from home are just a few of the things that can prevent an employee from building a normal buffer against stress in the workplace.

It is evident that most people in Liberia log a significant amount of time in traffic and spend roughly one-third of their day at work. It is important to guarantee that workplaces in Liberia have policies to foster good mental health programs for employees.

A few options include encouraging employees to exercise, sanctioning breaks at work where employees can mingle, and planning stress-free and employee’s resilience training. Employers can also hire a mental health professional to support staff on mental issues.

One good example of this is the case of Partners in Health, an international non-governmental organization working in Liberia. The organization provides support to ensure that the human resource department extends counseling to staff with mental health issues, conducts stress management activities, and runs employee resilience programs. Adapting this approach helps to optimize performance in the workplace, keeps staff mentally healthy, and increases the organization’s productivity.

Not all organizations can afford to follow the example of Partners in Health, but many public and private sector organizations in Liberia can still find other strategic and cost-effective ways to promote good mental health in the workplace. Organizations must first analyze the state of employees’ mental health, develop policies that foster good mental health, and implement those policies, regularly checking to ensure that the policies are well calibrated for employees. Employers can also ensure that they create an environment of mindfulness of mental health issues and that they are supportive of employees who stand at danger of facing stigma.

Featured photo courtesy of QVCC

Jonah Soe Kotee

Jonah Soe Kotee is the president of the Association of Liberian Human Resource Professionals and director of human resources at Partners in Health/Liberia, a Harvard-affiliated international NGO that has partnered with the government of Liberia to strengthen health systems. The opinions stated in this article are those of the author and are not the positions of Partners In Health.

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