I am often taken aback by how much mental wellness is misunderstood by many in the workplace. While some employers may be aware of the prevalence of the challenge among their workforce, its true impact on productivity is often downplayed. Other employers do not wish to face the problem at all. They would much rather deny it blatantly or wish the syndrome away. Yet the full effect of mental illness has a direct correlation to business performance. One only has to review organisational statistics that may include work attendance patterns, turnover as well as customer complaints. On another extreme, telling quality indicators of on-time delivery (i.e. right quality first time) as well as product scrap and rework percentages speak volumes. Very often when such numbers escalate management is quick to jump to enforce systems of consequence management to nail employees. The appetite for business to be thorough with investigations is much lower. Patience and capacity to engage with sensitivity is just non-existent in many cases. Invariably, human problems that emanate from mental illness persist in the workplace. Relationship tensions and antagonistic conflict are common too. Most concerning is when limited capacity and effort is observed in most human capital departments and managing incumbents. When HR custodians and business leaders are unwilling to empower themselves with mental health literacy to understand the gravity of issues on performance, holistic business growth is at risk. Recently, I was reminded about this fact, much to my sadness.
In the era following the whirlwinds of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ruthless impact of economic downturn on human livelihoods, fuel price hikes, mounting challenges of inflation, not to mention catastrophic levels of unemployment; mental ill health is truly inevitable. With alarming levels of alcohol and substance addiction at all levels of society, coupled with escalation of violence and abusive human relationships, are we surprised? The disintegration of the family structure and erosion of values have led to perpetuation of relationship complexities in the home environment. Business is cut-throat and faster than ever. Employers battle with competition in a quest to maximise profits and market share. Pressure on employees is even greater as we try to play catch-up following the unproductive dark patch of COVID-19. The threat of job loss and/or business closure is real. At the same time, many of us live with bleeding wounds of losing colleagues and loved ones in 2020 and 2021. Many of these human souls we could not bury for closure, others have not been mourned. In 2022, systems of business have returned to ‘normal’, yet nothing is quite so normal in the world. We should not be surprised we are where we are.
Mental ill health is real; ignoring the issue certainly does not make it go away. It touches all ages and all socio-economic levels, rich and poor. The negative impact on business hits directly at customer satisfaction and bottom-line results. The fact that most business leaders resist addressing this challenge baffles me. Many among them are just as ill, so this is no longer a sustainable model. Reservoir tanks of resilience among employees and many managing incumbents have been empty for the longest time to date. While many queue in psychiatric health facilities, others do not even recognise their poor health status due to lack of awareness (or denial) and cultural ignorance. One would have hoped for employers to respond to this issue in a more proactive way. Programmes of creating awareness and addressing challenges of stigma can be a good starting point. Following this may be empowerment of line managers to deal with mental illness with greater sensitivity. Part of this should include commitments to uphold confidentiality, thereby protecting the dignity of affected subordinates and fellow colleagues. In-house outlets of professional therapy should be created and sustained as reliable crutches for employees that need them. Statistical feedback from these units should inform strategies of enhancing workplace climate and culture. Greater effort must be employed to create energising work environments that fuel innovation. Organisations need to be more intentional about eliminating (or at least minimising) demotivating factors in the system. Economically and ethically this is just the right thing to do.
Industrial Psychologist and Managing Director.