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Managing Mental Health in the Workplace


An average Malaysian typically spends one-third of his time a day at work notwithstanding the additional time spent on commuting to and fro from work, additional meetings, and overtime to complete projects.

As the work environment plays a big role in shaping our experiences throughout the day, it is indeed time to start thinking about mental health initiatives in the workplace.

As a developing country, the more organisations strive for development, the more that employees are pushed to perform, often times at the risk of their quality of life. Mental health-related issues are estimated to be experienced by at least 40% of the Malaysian population in their lifespan.

The statistics mean that employers are now hard-pressed to acknowledge the burden of cost that mental illness can bring to their organisation and actively work to curb it.

mental health

To do that, organisations first need to understand the difference between mental health and mental illness. Simply put, mental health is a state of well-being where an individual is able to cope with common stressors in life, work productively and realize his or her potential and contribute back to the community.

It is not just an absence of mental illness such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia or so on and forth. Mental health occurs in a spectrum where wellbeing and disability are two opposing ends. The goal is then to increase practices that promote mental health and reduce those that hinder it.

The relationship between work and mental health can’t be studied in isolation and has to be seen in the larger context of one’s life. For example, staying back late may be a norm that is perceived as a commitment to the organisation, which then influences promotion, perks and benefits.

However, routinely staying back to complete work may be a sign of a lack of time management and an over-prioritisation of work. This then causes other aspects of one’s life, such as health, family, spiritual needs, and social life, to take a back seat and to be ignored or given less priority.

mental health

The cumulative effect of constantly neglecting these other aspects then creeps back into a person’s life in the form of health issues, relationship troubles, unhappy marriages, the feeling of leading a meaningless life and more, which then gnaws on the ability of one to be completely productive at work.

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Workplaces can help prevent this by changing their work cultures to be more balanced. Organisations are predominantly made of people and people have the potential to shape workplace cultures. This starts with cultivating the awareness that every aspect of life is important and needs to be paid attention to; for top management rights to the interns.

Firstly, it is important to realize that everyone has only 24 hours a day, though we often wish we had more. As such, a conscious prioritisation of activities that enables one to fulfil their different needs is important.

Workplaces can help by creating a healthy work-life balance by ensuring proper break times; reducing work-related communication during the weekend and after-work hours, avoiding lengthy meetings and ensure that time at work is efficiently used to achieve goals.

Human resource policies can also reflect the priority of the organisation with regard to employees’ mental health. The rise of millennials in the workforce, for instance, creates a highly tech-savvy cohort at work that may prefer flexi-working hours that prioritizes output instead of physical presence in the office.

mental health

Organisations can maximize productivity by constantly studying new trends and catering to them. Gamification (the application of concept, skills and design of games and implementation in the workplace) efforts that can maximize output in a fun, engaging and mutually reinforcing way is one example of such trends.

Open, honest and most importantly respectful communication within an organisation sets the tone for the relationships at work as well. The general workplace impression is that “everyone is replaceable.”

However, when organisations create an idea that everyone is included in the team for their unique skillset and is valuable to the team, it changes the tone of the work environment.

Another thing to consider while discussing wellness at work is that there could be many external stressors that are unrelated to work that could affect a person’s commitment. Caring for elderly parents, sick children, school meetings, accidents, chronic illnesses to name a few, are some of the stressors that employees may face over the course of their employment.

When employers are sensitive to these needs that may crop up, sometimes unplanned and uncalled for, the way they respond to the employee can be a gauge of how much they care about the employee as a person.

Finally, it is imperative to note that mental health at the workplace does not only apply to the wage earners but every stakeholder in the workplace. When top management understands the need to care for their own mental health, it brings about change in policies, formal and informal practices, and the overall work culture, which influences the employees as well.

About the Author

Puveshini Rao (M. Clin Psych) is a Clinical Psychologist and Employee Assistance Program specialist currently practicing in Rekindle Sdn. Bhd. She is a HRDF certified trainer and currently conducts trainings and provides EAP services for organisations while also seeing clients with mental health related issues. Previously she has experience providing counselling services in the university and hospital settings. She is also on the committee of Women’s Aid Organisation and volunteers her time to the cause.

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