Life & Work

Creating conducive workplaces for your mentally ill workers

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Up to 15 percent of working-age adults experience a mental disorder. FILE PHOTO | SHUTTERSTOCK

Tabitha Kabura had her first mental health episode in 2011. The then student was in a foreign country participating in an exchange programme. All was well until that fateful day when everything seemed to fall on her head.

She was rushed to the hospital and diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. It was shocking news, and she had to cut short her stay and jet back to Kenya to recover.

After feeling better, Ms Kabura returned to school and pursued travel consulting and customer care. In 2015 she impressed an interview panel and landed a job with a travel firm in Nairobi.

Her life and career appeared to be taking off. She debated whether to disclose her condition to her boss but dropped the idea for fear of getting fired.

She figured all would be well if she remained mum and diligently did her job. She was feted as the best employee.

But in 2016, one of her seniors started making sexual advances toward her. He would falsely accuse her to her immediate supervisor whenever she rebuffed him. She was depressed, and soon her work suffered.

"Pressures of work and life led me to relapse. I began having suicidal thoughts in the workplace and had to go join a rehabilitation centre," she says.

After getting her life together again, Ms Kabura went back to the workplace to resume work. She was, however, forced to resign.

"As a customer care service provider in the company, I do not think you should be there since we do not trust you. This is a critical position, and you are not a good fit," she quotes her boss's words.

Her efforts to explain her condition and what had led to her relapse were ignored. Left with little choice, she signed the resignation letter and collected her terminal dues.

Over the last few years, mental health at the workplace has become a prominent concern worldwide.

According to the World Health Organisation's World Mental Health report published in June 2022, up to 15 percent of working-age adults experience a mental disorder.

Yet, for workers like Ms Kabura, discussing or disclosing mental health remains a taboo in work settings.

The report notes that work amplifies broader societal issues that negatively affect mental health, including discrimination and inequality.

While the world raised awareness on mental health in May, employers and managers are called to accommodate workers with different conditions.

Emily Mugo, a group HR manager with Pacific Insurance Brokers (EA) & First Reinsurance Brokers Africa, shares that understanding an employee is at the heart of promoting mental health in an organisation.

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Emily Mugo, group HR with Pacific Insurance Brokers & First Reinsurance Brokers Africa. FILE PHOTO | POOL

This means coming up with inclusive ways by providing flexible working hours and schedules, job rotations, allowing them to work at their pace, creating awareness through training and workshops for all employees, and having indiscriminative policies that capture mental health.

"Providing insurance covers that help an employee seek medical care is also engraved in understanding your employees," she says.

Like Ms Kabura, Brian Emmanuel, a communication consultant, knows the sting of working in unaccommodating environments.

He lives with bipolar II and has been forced out of work twice over his mental illness. The first time his employer, a non-governmental organisation, let him go when he asked for a salary raise to afford his medications.

"I explained my condition to my employer, but I was told that depression is something everyone gets and should not put me down," he recalls. He opted to resign.

The second employer dealt with mental health. Emmanuel thought, at last, he'd found the perfect employer.

However, things went south when he got late for a meeting one day and was fired.

"Sometimes people with mental health conditions require different working times, but my boss did not provide this leading me to be discriminated against."

Ms Mugo says not creating a safe environment for employees to speak up promotes a culture of fear.

"These employees will remain mum because of fear of being fired, retrenched, stigmatised, discriminated, and side-lined for raises and promotions," she explains.

Paul Gichuhi, a business developer with Silver Resources International, shares that it takes two to tango in an organization's advocacy of mental health.

An employer or manager can pinpoint signs that all is not well with their employees.

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Paul Gichuhi -Business Developer Silver Resources International Limited during an interview at Nation Centre on May 26, 2023. PHOTO | SILA KIPLAGAT | NMG

Such tell-tale signs can be gleaned when they start procrastinating, keep to themselves,and getting into conflicts.

"When an employee starts asking for too many off days and sick leaves, being late or interchanging their shifts coming late leaving early, something is up," he adds.

While 80 percent of a manager's responsibility is on how they relate with their employees, Mr Gichuhi says that for a performing employee with a mental health condition, the said boss should be able to protect them even when odds are stacked against them.

"It will be unfair not to take cognisance of the employee's input and drop the hammer on them based on a crisis or relapse," he explains.

As managers and employers, in general, are being called to be coaches in workplaces, promoting an open communication system is crucial in creating an accommodative work environment.

Mr Gichuhi notes, "People do not care how much you know until they know how much you care."

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