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Mental Health in the Workplace: Creating a Safe Space for Employees

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Despite awareness campaign efforts by the government and private sector, many remain uninformed about mental health problems and downplay them as a mere emotional state instead of a serious issue. The government has enacted the Mental Health Law to provide mental healthcare to persons with mental health problems, and many groups and agencies have facilitated discussions about mental health. But the lack of education remains, and this accounts for the stigma surrounding mental health.

Many are unaware of the symptoms and cannot differentiate between a mental health disorder and a mental health concern. Meanwhile, those who are aware are sometimes unsure about how to approach a person with a mental health disorder. All these prevent people suffering from mental health disorders from opening up and seeking help, resulting in worsening mental health conditions that sometimes lead to thoughts about self-harm and even suicide.

In the Philippines, an estimated 3.3 million Filipinos suffer from depression, 3.17 million of whom experience anxiety issues, according to a report by the World Health Organization (WHO).[1] This is despite the country consistently ranking among the top 5 in the global optimism index.[2] The pandemic is not helping ease the numbers, with the National Center for Mental Health (NCMH) reporting a significant increase in monthly hotline calls regarding depression from 80 calls prelockdown to nearly 400 in recent months.[3]

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

As businesses struggle to stay afloat amid the economic crisis, some people have been left without jobs and others working in circumstances that could put them at greater risk of contracting the virus. Lockdown measures have also caused some people to be isolated due to difficulties of travelling to their hometowns or fear of infecting their family members. This uncertainty about the future is causing many to fall into distress, even depression, and it’s threatening to affect not just individuals but businesses as well, with profits expected to dip by as much as 16 percent due to employees being less productive.[1]

Companies and organizations must understand that their resiliency depend on the individual resiliencies of their employees. Now more than ever, with everyone anxious and fragile, is mental health in the workplace crucial. Earlier this year, the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) mandated the adoption and implementation of mental health policies and programs in workplaces.[4] But are companies and organizations putting in as much effort into their employees’ mental well-being as much as in their physical health?

Among the top causes of stress in the workplace right now are demanding workloads, long work hours, health and safety risks during fieldwork, lack of emotional support and poor communication with team members or superiors. Working from home might be beneficial in that employees avoid the stress of commuting and can save on transportation and meals, but the lack of clear boundaries between home and work can also cause a different kind of stress. Without the welcome coffee breaks and chats with officemates and Friday night outs after work, working from home can be draining for some. Quarantine fatigue is also starting to creep in.

Photo by taylor hernandez on Unsplash

During times like these, companies and organizations can show they care by being a bit more understanding of their employees. A simple “How are you feeling today?” or “What can I do to help?” can go a long way in communicating concern and building trust between superiors and their subordinates. This also shows that the company values the well-being of its employees as much as their job performance. A simple check once in a while can help gauge their mental health.

Companies and organizations must foster an environment where employees can speak openly about their mental health in accordance with Department Order No. 208. This will not only help in addressing the information gap about mental health in the workplace but will also inform companies and organizations of steps and measures they can take to ensure employees are happy and productive.[3] It will also be reassuring for employees to know that there are policies and programs established to protect them from discrimination in the workplace and that they have access to treatment, rehabilitation and a referral system, as well as benefits and compensation, among others.

Setting up a helpdesk or requiring human resources to check on personnel, however, is not enough. Empathetic communication is important in making employees feel comfortable to talk about their concerns or condition. Tone of voice, words used, gestures – all these contribute to how a message will come across. Instead of dismissive statements such as “It couldn’t be helped,” companies can engage in conversations with employees to encourage them to express how they feel. It would also help to avoid sounding aggressive or accusatory.

Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

Some businesses hold learning sessions to discuss self-support strategies such as managing anxiety and stress while staying productive. Others offer one-on-one counseling sessions or peer counseling workshops and have weekly mindfulness sessions to encourage employees to take care of themselves as well.

The efforts of human resource managers or superiors, however, will not be as effective if the employees themselves do not want to help themselves. Mechanisms for engaging employees to talk about their conditions or seek help will not work if personnel prefer to remain quiet about mental health issues in the workplace. Employees can help normalize conversations about mental health in the workplace by being honest with their feelings. Letting a coworker know when they have said something offensive or praising someone for their hard work will inspire others to speak up as well. While employees must always remain professional, hiding their true feelings may take a toll on their emotional well-being if not managed properly. There must be a balance.

Keeping employees happy, productive and engaged can be achieved with enough effort from companies and organizations to create an environment in which employees feel safe and valued. Ensuring the mental well-being of employees is one way of investing in them. Mental health must not be a taboo topic, especially in the workplace. By putting an importance on communication and mental health education, companies and organizations help eliminate the stigma surrounding mental health and step forward in achieving a more compassionate society.





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