KAMPALA – In February this year, I was called for an interview at one of the big Ugandan hospitals for a job I had highly anticipated to scoop. The panel was well balanced with administrators and senior colleagues and our interaction was largely seamlessly. I imagined I would be the hospital’s next recruit soon. However, something changed before I left the room. I was given a chance to ask the panel.
“What are you doing to address burnouts among employees in the institution?” I inquired, trying to establish if mental and physical wellbeing of employees is regarded by the employer.
I was met with an earsplitting 40-second silence until one panelist retorted, ‘Your time is up! The next candidate is due.’
I walked out of the room, partially perplexed but still hopeful I had the job. This experience has born today’s conversation, a plea for employers to foster good mental health of their employees.
By mental health, we don’t mean “mental ill-health”. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), mental health is a state of wellbeing in which every individual realizes their potential, can cope with normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to make a contribution to his or her community. With this definition in lieu, it is imperative for employers to consider the good mental health of staff in order for them to thrive at work. As a matter of fact, many employees hardly speak to their employers about their mental health struggles for fear of being misjudged about their commitment to work, discriminated and even laid off. Thus, many choose to suffer in silence and this eventually spirals into elevated stress levels, depression, loss of self-worth, limited productivity and even suicide.
Owing to the fact that we spend a considerable amount of our waking time working, workplaces can have a significant impact on our psychological wellbeing, positively or negatively. Negatively, toxic work environments pause a high risk for workers to suffer poor mental health. Therefore, employers need to do everything they can to help ensure the best possible health and wellbeing for every employee.
First, they ought to understand the full spectrum of poor mental health from common mental health problems to more severe mental health illnesses. According to a 2017 report by WHO, Uganda is ranked among top six countries with 4.6% living with depressive disorders, 2.9% with anxiety disorders and about 5.1% are males and 3.6% are females who are affected. Other common mental health problems include panic attacks, burnouts and fatigue. These mental health problems affect people differently and it is important that employers understand an individual’s experience.
When employers create work cultures where employees can speak, feel, think and express themselves, it is easier for them to reach out for help when they need it. Moreover, the way employers communicate and behave can affect everything about employee productivity. Hence promoting good mental health at work is a good step forward to maximize productivity and big returns on investment. Furthermore, employers need to do regular check-ins with employees who are suspected or confirmed to have mental health problems in order to foster a culture of open conversation at work as well as sign-post them to available care facilities.
Human resource managers and administrators need to regard and properly document mental health problems or concerns of individuals during interviews, at recruitment and on the job without prejudice. Also, the adoption of workplace mental health indicators in employee rating initiatives such as mental health appraisals could aid in employee disclosure and seeking of help early.
Lastly, employers ought to include mental health cover in their insurance health schemes to make it easy for employers to seek medical help for mental health problems, should they have any.
The writer, Dr Raymond Mugume is a medical doctor, advocate for mental health working with Mulago National Specialized hospital and Makerere University Lung Institute.