Health & Fitness

Promoting mental health at the office

mental-wellnes

Asian female staff members meditating in an office. FILE PHOTO | NMG

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Summary

  • There is more than ample evidence in support of the benefits of ensuring that the workplace is safe for the staff.
  • Recent studies have shown that stress, burnout, anxiety, and depression are common in the workplace but more significantly, go unrecognised by both staff and the employer.
  • A well-planned Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) must be seen to be just that, a plan that is for the benefit of the employee and not (as many seem) the first step towards dismissal.

Question: What are the practices in ensuring mental wellness in the workplace? I recently got promoted to a HR role that requires me to promote this.

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The 25th Annual conference of the Institute of Human Resource Managers (IHRM), was held recently in Mombasa. I had the privilege of addressing delegates present on the very subject that you asked us today. If you were present, then the following will be familiar to you. It is others who will benefit from the answer we give to you.

A few definitions will help set the context for this conversation.

A workplace wellness programme is “A coordinated, and comprehensive set of health promotion and protection strategies implemented at the worksite that include programmes, policies, benefits, environmental support, and links to the surrounding community designed to encourage the health and safety of all employees”

This mouthful of a definition captures some of the things that you must now work on in your new role if you are to be an effective HR practitioner. The are many reasons for putting in place sound HR policies.

It is, for example, estimated that the average employee spends 50 hours a week at the workplace. In other words, we spend more waking hours at work than in our homes. The average male works for 38 years, while the female is estimated to work for 33.3 years. If a worker is to be productive, then the place he spends most of his time must be made conducive.

There is more than ample evidence in support of the benefits of ensuring that the workplace is safe for the staff. Equally, it is well recognised that employee wellness has a direct impact on productivity, and by extension to the shareholders.

Recent studies have shown that stress, burnout, anxiety, and depression are common in the workplace but more significantly, go unrecognised by both staff and the employer. This leads to poor productivity and high medical expenses as well as absenteeism/presenteeism.

During the Mombasa event, it was demonstrated that it is possible to teach HR practitioners simple techniques for recognising poor mental health at the workplace, and more importantly what to do about such findings.

The first thing for the HR team to recognise is that the affected member of staff has changed in one way or another. A previously hard-working IT manager who seems to have become ‘lazy, forgetful and irritable’ might be in the early stages of a depressive illness.

A marketing executive who was a star performer who is noticed to be drinking too much, turning up for client appointments late and sometimes smelling of alcohol at work might be in the early stages of an anxiety disorder, or even suffering the effects of a bad marriage.

In both cases, the bad HR practitioner might issue a show cause letter, thus ensuring that the situation gets worse. You on the other hand will want to know directly or through your peers, what might have caused this change in behavior.

Central to your being a modern HR practitioner is a keen eye on the change in the work pattern. Tired-looking sleepy workers may be telling you that they have anxiety or depression and that they are unable to sleep at night. Insomnia is a very common sign of many mental disorders.

Other signs that a member of staff might need help include, social withdrawal, indifference to the work in hand demonstrated by handing in work with many errors, as though he is inviting reprimand. Lateness to work, frequent accidents on the factory floor, and detachment may all be signs that the employee needs help, not punishment and most certainly not dismissal (particularly in the case of previously hard-working well-trained staff with a good work record).

A well-planned Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) must be seen to be just that, a plan that is for the benefit of the employee and not (as many seem) the first step towards dismissal. Some companies give the impression that seeking psychological support at the workplace is evidence of weakness, and thus the member of staff must be watched for further signs of weakness!

The use of the buddy system where peer-to-peer support is encouraged has been found to be most helpful. You as the HR practitioner must focus on the behavior at work and its effect on the workplace. Remember you are not a mental health expert and any attempt to make a ‘diagnosis’ about depression, alcoholism, marital problems, or such will drive the employee further away from the help they need and expose you as an inadequate HR practitioner.