Rather than a benefit, a job might be hazardous to your mental health. That’s the proposition consultant, psychiatrist and mental health advocate Chitayi Murabula, along with food blogger, nature addict and psychologist Tayyiba Sheriff, took head on.
In an Africa Tweet Chat, Murabula and Sheriff looked at how environment, genetics, open work spaces and other factors influence mental health in the workplace.
“The genetics of mental health is quite complex because heredity is not based on a single gene, but rather multiple genes interacting together,” Sheriff said. “However, twin studies show that certain mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder have genetic roots.
“In fact, some mental disorders share genetic risk factors,” she said. “For instance, the genetic variation linked to schizophrenia overlaps with bipolar disorder and depression. The presence of a mental illness in a family doesn’t guarantee its inheritance but increases the risk of acquiring it.”
She added that nature, nurture — or both – might factor into mental health.
“Mental health is a state of wellbeing that allows coping with life stresses, ability to work, forming relationships and contributing to society,” Murabula said.
“Mental health is not a mental illness,” he said. “A mental disorder is an illness that affects a person’s mood, thinking and behavior. Therefore, it is more appropriate to discuss genetics in relation to mental illnesses than to mental health.”
He noted that there are more than 200 mental illnesses – some mild, others severe – each with a different cause and course.
“Mental disorders occur when biological, psychological and social risk factors or causes interact,” Murabula said. “No single risk factor is sufficient to cause a mental disorder.
“Genetic risk factors are an example of biological causes of mental illness alongside factors like head injury, cancer and infections like malaria and HIV,” he said. “The psychological causes of mental illnesses include factors like low self-esteem, psychological trauma and loss of a family member at a young age.”
Social risk factors for mental disorders include poverty, family instability, bereavement, loss of employment, imprisonment, stigma and violence, as well as stressful working conditions.
“A person carrying a genetic risk factor for a disorder like depression might not develop depression until an environmental stressor like loss of a family member is encountered,” Murabula said. “Since we do not have ready access to our genetic makeup — hence our genetic risk factors for mental disorders — it is advisable to embrace practices that promote good mental health.
“This is an ongoing study in several African countries whose findings will increase our understanding of the genetics of mental disorders,” he said.
Among the more delicate challenges is detecting if a colleague is suicidal and in dire need of help.
“Certain warning signs are noticeable such as self-harm, engagement into disturbing behavior, sudden calmness after a depressive period, withdrawal from society, dependence on alcohol or drugs, recklessness, and fatigue from lack of or excessive sleep,” Sheriff said.
“Notice their conversations, too,” she said. “Statements might indicate feelings of being a burden, trapped, lack of belonging or direct mention of death. Unexplained hostility and irritability are important signals as well.”
Not every suicidal colleague will show depressive symptoms.
“Others, in an attempt to mask their pain, will appear very ‘normal,’ happy and carefree,” Sheriff said. “Such cases are even more dangerous and challenging to handle.
“If you suspect colleagues of being suicidal — even though the signs might be subtle — keep a close eye on them and watch out for these behaviors,” she said. “Be aware of suicide hotlines that be reached instantly, and ensure that professional help is available.”
Training for both managers and staff is essential.
“Mental illness could occur to anyone,” Sheriff said. “Increased work stress is one of the major risk factors.”
Murabula explained that the relationship between genetics and mental illnesses is complex.
“No specific genes have been found to cause specific mental disorders, but several genes contribute to the risk of developing a mental disorder,” he said. He gave signs of mental illness at the workplace:
- A constant bad relationship with workmates.
- Longstanding poor concentration during meetings and inability to complete assignments.
- Frequent absenteeism from work that cannot be otherwise explained.
- Extreme fear of people or making presentations.
- Constantly talking about death.
- Hearing voices of people who are not present, or seeing people or things not present — hallucination.
- Withdrawing from group activities and isolating oneself for long periods.
- Excessive and uncontrollable use of substances such as alcohol, bhang or miraa, including working while intoxicated.
“The diagnosis of mental illness is a complex process,” Murabula said. “It is advisable that no one makes a self-diagnosis or diagnoses workmates. If a sign of a mental disorder is noticed, a professional opinion should be sought.”
As open office spaces have come into vogue, company executives have made use of them to help combat mental health issues.
“Average people spend about a third of their day at their workplace,” Sheriff said. “Undeniably, the workplace environment has major effects on one’s mental health, especially for cases such as work-related stress and anxiety.
“In some cases, open space offices might lower perceived stress and encourage more movement than private cubicles, hence encouraging physical wellness,” she said. “The open setup allows colleagues to monitor each other and pick up hints on deteriorating mental health.”
Colleagues suffering from anxiety or depression would be noticed more easily compared to when they would be in private cubicles.
“In this way, an open space allows more transparency, communication and support among workmates,” Sheriff said. “Such offices can also design hubs of social interactions or impromptu meetings by creating something as simple as circular couches that can facilitate a round table discussion. This could further encourage a sense of interconnectedness and boost innovation.
“Allow spaces for collaboration and creativity,” she said. “Then, brainstorming ideas while de-stressing is not impossible. Employees will certainly appreciate the different options available for them and choose which works best for them.”
On the other hand, open space is not a panacea.
“It could worsen the condition of some employees with or without a mental illness,” Sheriff said. “Since everyone’s personality and working style differs, some could feel better around people, while for others, it could accelerate their symptoms.
“Especially those suffering from depression are intolerant to noise,” she said. “Hence, in an open-space office, they could experience more fatigue and irritability. A one-size-fits-all solution might not be the ideal way forward when systematic differences are involved.”
One such solution could be miss-applied to introverts who are perfectly satisfied.
“Introverts are often mistaken as isolated individuals, whereas most of them are actually very social,” Sheriff said. “Rather, symptoms such as lack of interest in daily activities, consistent sulking, low tolerance, self-harm and lots more are indicators of deteriorating mental health.”
Indeed, introversion might get conflated with social anxiety.
“They’re not the same,” Sheriff said. “In fact, all of us are neither completely introverted or extroverted. We lie in a spectrum where some are more introverted than others and vice versa.
“Introverts do tend to feel left out more often,” she said. “However, some deal with it pretty well and are comfortable in their own skin.”
At the same time, don’t cower in the face of an extrovert.
“Don’t be intimidated by extroverts,” Sheriff said. “You can equally excel in your field. The famous Jay Shetty is also an introvert, but he is out there, changing lives. He can, so can you. Don’t let anyone set the barriers for you.”
Overusing computers to access social media platforms without monitoring can affect mental health.
“The rise in the use of internet in the last 20 years comes with a probable risk to our mental wellness,” Murabula said. He gave several problem scenarios:
- An individual with a pre-existing mental health condition, such as bipolar mood disorder, can engage in harmful internet use as a manifestation of the mental health condition.
- An internet user can become dependent, as is the case with pathological gambling disorder.
- Harmful internet use can precipitate a new mental health condition such as depression in the setting of other risk factors.
“Cyber-bullying is associated with increased risk of self-harm and even completed suicide,” Murabula said.
Rather than fight the online trend, Sheriff advises managers to work with it.
“With advancements in technology, access to anything is granted,” she said. “Unmonitored use of social media platforms has undoubtedly created havoc in society. If used for the right reasons, for the right amount of time, social media can be a powerful tool.
“Social media doesn’t always spread the most useful information,” Sheriff said. “Certain groups normalize unhealthy behaviors such as anorexia and other lifestyle choices. For a person who is easily brainwashed or carried away, such information can lead one down a dark path.”
Such journeys can be lethal.
“Several reports have been published of people accessing information on suicide and taking the decision on themselves to go down the same path,” Sheriff said. “It is also no surprise that more teens and youths are now mentally affected because of cyberbullying.
“Unfortunately, when people start suffering from a number of symptoms, they avoid professional help and resort to the internet, which often predicts the wrong illness,” she said.
Well-informed intervention can save lives.
“In a recent case, a teenager began having depressive symptoms due to overuse of social media,” Sheriff said. “A simple change introduced to his schedule — restricting access to social media an hour before sleeping and after waking up — showed significantly positive results.”
Identification of a mental health problem might be possible at the root level.
“Through a collection of information, not only can staggering mental issues be identified, but also the necessary changes to be made,” Sheriff said. “In some cases, it could be a simple lifestyle factor that’s escalating the issue.
“The easy way out of any problem is either drugs or alcohol,” she said. “Such people are unaware of the harm that they are bringing upon themselves. Recovery then can be quite a long process.”
Looking deeper can reveal helpful solutions.
“During the research process, patterns can be identified as well as coping strategies,” Sheriff said. “Furthermore, follow-ups on the same samples conducted would show whether the particular strategy was effective or not, and alter accordingly.”
Impostor syndrome and multitasking compound mental health issues.
“Some might constantly doubt their work, need reassurance, face difficulty concentrating, following instructions and meeting deadlines,” Sheriff said. “Focusing on multiple tasks proves debilitating, too.”
Employees placed under an expectation to be online and available to their employers 24/7 can incur a serious cost to their mental and physical well-being. Poor communication adds to the complexity.
“One of the most mishandled and underestimated solutions is appropriate communication,” Sheriff said. “Most people are unaware of the right approach and might — although unintentionally — say things that are inappropriate, which lead into emotional triggers.
“Remind people of their strengths rather than their weaknesses,” she said. “This doesn’t mean that their weaknesses should be ignored and excused, but first and foremost, reassure them and reignite their self-confidence.”
Resist changing what does not need fixing.
“We should be willing to accept people as they are and assist those who are struggling,” Sheriff said. “Today it’s them. Tomorrow it could be you.”
Murabula cautioned against compounding stigmas.
“Accept your colleague with a mental health problem as human,” he said. “There is no difference between mental illness and physical illness. Besides, anybody can suffer from a mental illness at any age.
“Do not make the mental health problem of a colleague the focal point of humor and gossip,” Murabula said. “It is inhuman to derive fun out of the suffering of a fellow human being.”
To offer the best help, know the resources at hand.
“Help colleagues with a mental problem by advising them where they can find a mental health professional,” Murabula said. “Offer to accompany them where possible and if acceptable.
“Company executives should organize frequent mental health education forums to improve the mental health literacy levels of employees and reduce stigma against mental illness,” he said.
This is why Sheriff said each company or workplace should have a guidance and counseling office.
“We spend most of our time at the workplace,” she said. “If we can’t have basic counseling offered there, we will surely be taking all our problems back home only to create more havoc.
“Every workplace should have a guidance or counseling department,” Sheriff said. “This will reassure many employees.”
As if normal stresses were not enough, the injection of harassment compounds toxic environments.
“Although a stressful working environment is a risk factor for mental illnesses, sexual harassment significantly contributes to that stressful environment,” Murabula said.
Guidance and counseling alone are not enough to prevent sexual harassment at the workplace, but Sheriff said it’s a starting point.
“This is why it’s important for workplaces to have policies well defined in advance in case of such instances,” she said. “Gather proof if you have to, but most importantly, take action. Report it to your employer or legal authorities.”