Addressing mental health in the workplace

Celine Chami
Jun 24, 2022

This article is available in Arabic.

Mental health is a topic that’s been increasingly on the rise, especially after the last two years where people had to undergo many changes caused by the Covid pandemic. The effects of uncertainty, lockdowns, confinements, isolation and stress came trickling down on people, creating an unprecedented wave of challenges, mainly on their health and wellbeing.

According to Our World in Data, 792 million people – roughly 11 percent of the world population – suffer from mental illness. Depression and anxiety disorders are the most common. This percentage is much more prevalent in Arab countries, where it averages nearly 30 percent. As the youth population ages, they will have unprecedented mental health needs to cope with dementia, for example. The Arab Centre Washington DC states that dementia cases are estimated to increase by 400 percent in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region by 2050.

This is particularly alarming in a region where mental health is still highly stigmatised, especially in the workplace. Today, people with mental disorders still seek informal ways of inquiring about mental health for fear of being marginalised by their surroundings, or fired from their jobs. Moreover, studies reveal that low perceived need for treatment has been shown to be a greater barrier to seeking treatment than has stigma.

This status quo has started to slowly shift, mainly due to the global conversation happening around mental health. People, experts and companies are breaking the taboos and initiating actions aimed at shedding light on mental health and treating it like physical health. At the workplace, the conversation is driven by employees and candidates asking the questions and expecting answers. And while organisations in the Middle East have a long way to go on this journey, leadership is sitting up and listening.

According to Professor Sir Cary Cooper, ALLIANCE Manchester Business School. and co-author of Managing Workplace Health and Wellbeing During a Crisis and Remote Workplace Culture, many companies are now seeing mental wellbeing of employees as a strategic issue. They do regular wellbeing audits and plan strategies to deal with it at the level of senior leadership teams.

“You find companies like the global construction company MACE doing regular wellbeing surveys with all their employees, finding out what the problems are and intervening to sort them out.  The Director of Health and Wellbeing explores with the SLT whether the interventions work and contribute to employee health and bottom line indicators. This strategic approach is increasing in many sectors from finance to manufacturing to the public sector,” he states.

For instance in the UAE the government is regularly undertaking new measures to address mental health issues and reduce the stigma associated with them.

So how can companies in the Middle East start embracing mental health in the workplace?

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention clarifies that the workplace is an optimal setting to create a culture of health because:

  • Communication structures are already in place.
  • Programmes and policies come from one central team.
  • Social support networks are available.
  • Employers can offer incentives to reinforce healthy behaviours.
  • Employers can use data to track progress and measure the effects.

Going for long-term fixes

Many organisations are trying to go for short-term fixes. However, the shift needs to happen more strategically. More importantly, companies need to understand that the return on most initiatives will not happen overnight – and this is exactly why change needs to be embedded in a company’s strategic approach to employees’ health and wellbeing.

It starts by asking the basic questions of ‘why should work make people sick?’, ‘how do we create a workplace where people are purpose-driven?’ and ‘how do we embed health programmes that promote mental health and wellbeing?’

Dr Carolyn Lorian, Head of Clinical Transformation at SilverCloud Health, explains that this will help organisations understand how they will address the actual root causes associated with diminished employee mental health – whether that is the direct nature of the work (e.g. physical environment) or the indirect ways of working (e.g. resourcing challenges, lack of processes or change management).

She says that while many organisations are taking steps to improve employee mental health by putting in place a mental health strategy and increasing investment in various initiatives, fewer organisations have successfully translated this into a culture that positively impacts mental health. While a great first step is to build employees’ awareness around mental health, they also need to be considering a number of different top-down and bottom-up factors in order to enable a positive cultural shift.

Even if companies haven’t started implementing effective strategies, taking small measures is a great leap forward. It will allow employees to take notice of the efforts that are being deployed. “It goes without saying that by offering mental health and wellbeing provisions as part of their organisation benefits, an employer shares a simple but important message that they care,” states Carolyn.

Creating a suitable workplace culture

According to the Mental Health Foundation: “When we create workplace cultures where people can be themselves, it is easier for people to speak about mental health concerns without fear, and easier for them to reach out for help when they need it. Even so, the decision to disclose distress at work is not one people take lightly. It is vital that workplaces become environments where people feel safe to be themselves.”

This implies that employees need to be open-minded and accept the experiences and feelings of colleagues. This also means that the workplace needs to similarly adapt, so that employees can enjoy some relaxation activities, or even some time off within their regular working hours.

Re-centring job-related decisions

One very efficient measure a company can implement is to allow employees to participate in decisions pertaining to their jobs. Let them identify which tasks or issues are causing them stress, and what are the possible scenarios they could implement to be least impacted by that stress. Sometimes solutions are much simpler than they would appear at first. It could be to work in a team on a specific project or to get training in a field where they feel they lack some skills.

Dr Carolyn Lorian suggests that companies can indeed empower teams and groups to develop initiatives that are aligned to the overarching wellbeing strategy but are adapted to their unique needs.

Once employees are actively participating in shaping their jobs, they set better expectations for themselves and for their managers, and can better manage the stress that might arise from the work environment.

Applying reasonable adjustment policies

Last, but not least, workplaces need to have reasonable adjustment where needed. This is important in levelling the work conditions, so that people are not hindered by their mental health state to work on their tasks. Barriers that prevent them from performing their jobs need to be removed, for the ultimate goal of having an inclusive workplace where every person can easily thrive and achieve their full potential.

Celine Chami

Marketing and communications consultant

Celine is a brand expert and university lecturer with over 20 years of experience. As well as working and training hundreds of companies in the MEA region, she is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Human Resources.