QUESTION: The negative working environment, salary cuts and general life pressures have led to an increase in employees with mental health problems. As a HR director or line manager, how do I deal with employees with depression, anxiety disorder and bipolar disorder?
Rather than make me feel sad, yours is a question that makes me very happy for several reasons. I have for the last 40 years or so waited for this type of question because in it is evidence that ours is now beginning to become a society that not only recognises, but is able to approach mental health issues in a mature and modern manner.
You have accurately enumerated several factors currently at play in this country that alone or more commonly in combination can and do lead to psychological suffering. In a sense, what you are telling us is that a negative working environment might be responsible in some way for leading some people to states of anxiety or even depression.
At the office, where your question seems to be originating from, the situation is no better and instances of maltreatment of workers are rife. Harassment and negativity can range from overt to covert. In a recent example of overt negativity, a foreign company was paying its nationals with lower qualifications, higher salaries than better educated Kenyans.
Other than the racial undertones detected in this instance, no other explanations could be established for this observation. Sadly, this is not new behaviour. Just before independence in Kenya, several young people graduated from Makerere University as doctors. I saw some of them die, one by one due to the types of mental conditions you are now asking us to address.
At first, they developed depression with anxiety, and soon a number were drinking to help them cope with these feelings of distress for the fact that they were not being treated like their white doctor colleagues. White nurses were better paid.
Some died in tragic road accidents while others developed liver diseases that eventually lead to their deaths. This workplace hostility was not limited to doctors employed by the government of the day but was extended to other Africans. Some of them suffered in different ways, including breakup of their families.
Fast-forwarding to today and the negative working environments, the case of discriminatory practices in the workplace are many. In many studies for example, it has been shown that in general, women are paid less than men for doing the same job.
Many companies deny that this is an institutional practice, but the facts speak for themselves. In a similar way, the systems of promotions to top positions in many organisations are based on ‘old boy’ networks rather based on merit as it should be.
There are multiple other discriminatory practices that amount to a negative working environment, and which can lead to mental disorders. Some are tragic and preventable; others are beyond belief in the 21st Century Kenyan environment.
A young veterinary doctor working in a county, not of his origin, developed features of depression and had to be hospitalised after he had taken an overdose of some medication given to him for the treatment of the insomnia that had bothered him for several months.
A self-driven high performing perfectionist, the young man had a distinguished academic career and had not experienced failure at any stage in his life. In a sense, he had no firsthand knowledge of failure of any sort. That was until in the course of his duties he experienced the worst form of exclusion.
All the workers in the county office were from the same county and would talk to each other in their mother tongue. Because he did not understand the language, he pleaded to be addressed in any of the official languages of Kenya, a request that was dismissed even by his supervisor. This is what led to the attempt at suicide.
This type of exclusion in the workplace has been noted to lead some people to go on the road of anxiety, depression and for some people have precipitated other mental disorders.
The simple answer to the question before us is yes, stresses at the workplace do lead to mental disorder, but the good news is that you and other human resources management roles are able to step back and address the real issues that seem to afflict those under your charge who have mental health needs arising from stressful work enviroments.