For many years, mental health issues and work were two mutually exclusive terms.
In fact, former Senior Consultant Psychiatrist at the Psychiatric Hospital Dr Ermine Belle, said, “at one time in Barbados, you could not be in a workplace if you had a mental illness; in fact, you were not allowed to be even interviewed for a job if you had such a condition.”
However, mental health issues within the work environment have now become a growing cause for concern worldwide. In a recent panel discussion on Mental Health in the Workplace put on by the Psychiatric Hospital, veteran trade unionist, Orlando “Gabby” Scott presented some statistics highlighting just how serious this matter has become.
“The global cost for treating mental health issues in the workplace is now 1.6 trillion pounds or US$2.5 trillion, way more than cardiovascular disease, cancer or diabetes. And studies in the European Union show that mental health problems have become a leading cause of people receiving disability benefits, direct medical costs and indirect costs through loss of productivity, which amounts to more than 460 million euros per year.”
Dr Sharon Harvey, who has also worked at the Psychiatric Hospital, built on this point by noting that “In the UK, there has been a definite increase in the amount of people seeing general practitioners on mental health matters, while in Europe, mental ill health has been a major factor in early retirement. Figures also show that 45 per cent of the workforce is operating with a mental illness, while 71 per cent of those who lost their job over the past year have depressive symptoms”.
While some companies have introduced wellness programmes encouraging their staff to adopt more healthy lifestyles, the panelists were concerned that the mental health aspect was often ignored, or not given a high priority.
Anderson Kellman, senior counsellor at Network Services Inc., a company which administers employee assistance programmes throughout corporate Barbados, stated that “we spend about 60 per cent of our waking productive lives at work, so any challenges we have there will affect our mental health.” He outlined several practices that can lead to a toxic work environment, including “abusive and ineffective management practices; unreasonable expectations, that is, setting goals and targets that are too hard to achieve; harassment all across the company in different forms; ineffective meetings or no meetings at all; people who are afraid to speak because of fear of victimization; poor communication, where people outside the company know what is happening before the workers do; absenteeism, and poor interpersonal relationships or polarization.”
On the subject of Employee Assistance Programmes, Kellman said they were very important, in that “what affects us at home affects us at work and vice versa, and with the constant upheavals in the working world these days, it is imperative for workers to have support”.
Following on from this matter, Management Science lecturer at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus, Dr Dwayne Devonish, said in evaluating such programmes over the years, he noted that they often failed on three counts, namely, “A general lack of awareness and education from management and staff; an unsupportive culture that does not want to embrace change, and a general fear and mistrust between management and employees.”
Margaret Gill, a tutor at UWI who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder some 30 years ago, said stigma was the biggest problem people had in trying to deal with mental health issues. She spoke of three people she knew who had committed suicide because they could not get the help they sought.
“The World Health Organization in a 2001 study identified that people who have been diagnosed with mental illnesses, have a higher rate of unemployment, but the study does not say what happens when you go to work and become ill. People with bipolar disorder who take time off may use a euphemism like “anxiety crisis” to describe their absence owing to the stigma. However, when it is a physical illness like cancer or diabetes we say what it is, although it is only in recent times we’ve been able to do this also,” Gill noted.
Dr Harvey also touched on the issue of stigma, stressing that “This only makes the patient feel worse and makes it harder to recover. They always feel when they come back to work, their colleagues will look at them differently. Another major concern the patients have is whether information about their condition will be kept confidential, especially in a small society like ours”.
The panelists came up with several recommendations to improve the mental health climate in the workplace. Kellman said characteristics of a healthy work environment included “principled leadership, creating consistency in decision making; a place that enables employees to participate in the decision making process; where they can see growth occurring, where employees feel validated, when they know if they make an error it will be corrected in a compassionate manner”.
Dr Devonish, on the other hand, outlined what he termed “4 Es” to make employee assistance programmes more effective. These include, “Education; Enabling, that is creating an environment where the lessons learned can be implemented, Engagement of all staff members in the process, and Encouragement, providing incentives to staff members.”
Ms Gill highlighted how patients could manage their conditions and their work environments more effectively. “Self-stigmatization is something you have to fight against. Let people know the nature of your illness. Get a routine that keeps you physically healthy, seek divine intervention as that will guide and strengthen you, and once you recognize that you need help, forget about the stigma and seek that assistance you need to cope with your condition,” she said.