by Joachim Lee, Senior Psychotherapist
Workplace mental health is becoming an attractive proposition for employees and employers alike. Having a mentally healthy environment can help employees become happier, more productive and motivated individuals. Yet, mental health issues are often swept under the rug, simply because they can be touchy subjects to handle. In Singapore, the Health Promotion Board (HPB) drew from data culled from 1000 respondents, and found that compared to an n representative of Singapore’s general population, the mental well-being of working adults was found listing – 13% more worse off, to be exact. In addition, another survey also found that 1-in-6 working adults experience “a relatively high level of stress”, compared to 1-in-10 non-working adults who expressed the same concerns. This stark contrast makes us wonder – Does working for ‘The Man’ make us miserable? Does that mean we can curtly reply “Money”, when the interviewer wants to know why we want that job?
Singapore is notorious for a fast pace of living, a country where your career helps to define you. With career advancement already firmly ensconced within our list of priorities (for the average Singaporean, at least), many tend to devote a good part of their waking hours to work, with less and less time being set apart for leisure and recreation. It makes sense then, that we should look to the workplace as a concept just as deeply implicated in our happiness (or lack thereof) as home and family.
Employers who pay scant attention to the mental health issues of their employees will soon find that such a business model doesn’t pay long-term dividends. In fact, it may end up costing them – there are countless studies out there detailing and actually quantifying the monetary costs of poorly managing workplace mental health. Intuitively, we’ve already known this without having to be told – if the only free time you’re allotted for a restroom break has to be taken during your 10-minute lunch, then you’ve probably seen fit to leave your bootstraps in the toilet. Employers, too, know the sting of cynical, burned out employees making full use of paid medical leave.
In this case, not only does the organisation have to pony up the employee’s sick leave entitlement, they also have to incur the opportunity cost of the work the employee would have contributed if they were present and productive. The organisation thus suffers financially. Moreover, mental health issues can precipitate workplace bullying and harassment. Employees may start feeling disempowered, demotivated and dissatisfied with their jobs. The overall workplace morale takes a plunge.
In light of this, we have to acknowledge that we, more often than not, overlook an extremely important factor which makes or breaks the mental well-being of employees in the workplace.
I am reminded of the movement of person-centered decision making in the workplace by the pithy saying: “Nothing About Me Without Me”.¹ It serves to remind people that even though individuals with mental health issues may be deprived of 100% lucidity and perspicacious decision making abilities, others should, as a principle, accord them the same respect, and not make any decisions without consulting with them. This is especially so if these potential choices might affect the employee’s quality of life. When making considerations which may impinge on another’s life, it’s only good manners to make sure that everyone affected is a stakeholder.
Mental health issues tend to attract the kind of hushed conversations that we want to avoid. It’s simply improper to gossip about such deeply personal issues. Conversations regarding the affected individual shouldn’t take place without their “blessing”, either. If I were to take a charitable interpretation of such water-cooler talk, I might say, after all, people may not know the right approach to handle these situations, or they may simply be misguided in their good intentions!
Some useful guidelines for professionalism at the workplace. If you are, for example, a HR-manager and suspect that an employee of yours requires help with a personal mental health issue, do not:
- Apprise superiors of his condition without seeking his permission first
- Try to “ease his burden” by lessening his workload in an attempt to “help” him cope with his condition without consulting him beforehand
Instead, as soon as any discussion is started about the individual, he should be brought into the fray and not be left in the dark. The point here is about giving back control to the person in question, and allowing him to understand that he is still equally respected regardless of his mental health.
What happens if these pointers are neglected? Unfortunately, diminishing the employee’s workload without consulting him first may chip away at his sense of self-worth, since he is stripped of the ability to demonstrate his capabilities. Moreover, having your superiors talk about you behind your back can in some ways, make you feel discriminated against for having a mental disorder. This breeds a sense of distrust amongst colleagues, which erodes the fabric of work cooperation. Not respecting someone’s dignity and right to make decisions can also hinder his/her mental recovery process. Needless to say, such workplace environments are deeply unprofessional outfits which detract from productivity and dignity.
We should thus focus on what we can do to make our workspaces better places, and mentally healthier ones. We should start taking “Nothing About Me Without Me” seriouusly. We need to start recognising its importance to a well-oiled outfit and how it helps foster pride and dignity. In fact, we should help this principle take root at the organisational level, such as including people with past experiences of mental health issues in the development and expansion of workplace mental health policies, or seeking their input when it comes to planning activities in service of mental well-being. Policies centered on transparency and proper communication should also be developed as adjuncts to ensure that the organisation is committed to making sure employees’ voices are heard when it comes to issues of mental health and their careers. If more organisations are willing to take these steps, there’s no doubt our workplaces will slowly become more conducive and nurturing environments. How is your company contributing towards making your workplace a mentally healthier one? Share your thoughts in the comment section below, so we’re all better off for having heard these ideas.
¹ Golding, E. and Diaz, P. (2020) Mental Wealth. New York: Morgan James Publishing.