Those vulnerable to mental illness are in greater jeopardy if their workplace is unsafe. Toxic environments polluted by bullies, stigma and other threats can push people over the brink. Working from home makes challenges even more complex.
Counselor, psychologist and mental health advocate Faith Mathenge talked about these and related issues on the job with Dr. Joachim Mabula, a senior medical advisor and founder and CEO of Settled Minds, during an Africa Tweet Chat.
Mathenge believes employees can take the initiative to create safe places at work.
“They should identify problems at their workplaces and solve them with their employers so they have a greater positive impact from what they do,” she said. “Employees should be fair to one another, make sure all the policies involved are fair to all no matter their gender, race, religion, orientation or how long they have been with the company.
“Employees should use proper communication among themselves and with their employers,” Mathenge said. “Be involved in making decisions of the organization. Inform the employer in case of a problem, and suggest how it can be solved.”
She noted that employees should have clear guidelines on what should be done, when and where and for how long.
Mental health issues typically emerge with specific stigma and symptoms.
“Businesses should have harassment training on a regular basis and encourage the employer or supervisor to join the training as well,” Mathenge said. “If any employee feels harassed, make sure that has been addressed according to the rules set forth.
“At the bottom of it all, employees should be friends and support each other to their level best,” she said. “They should avoid competition and workplace politics.”
She sees these warning signs among employees:
- Lack of interest in things they used to at the workplace such as going out with colleagues after work.
- They start giving excuses.
- Withdrawal from colleagues.
- They don’t join their colleagues during tea break.
- Increase of substance use such as alcohol or cigars.
- Lack of motivation to work, which was not the case before.
- Changes in mood.
- They look sad.
- Having anger outbursts at the workplace.
- Absenteeism that was not there before.
- Low productivity.
“These symptoms don’t necessarily mean people have a mental illness,” Mathenge said. “They might be going through a stressful event in their life. But in case you notice such changes, advise them to seek help from a professional.”
Mabula has encountered these mental-illness symptoms:
- Confusion or lack of concentration
- Feeling sad or down
- Excessive fears or worries
- Extreme mood changes
- Withdrawal from friends
- Significant tiredness
- Having sleepless nights
Today’s workplace contributes to a rise in depression and anxiety.
“Psychological harassment at the workplace can result in depression,” Mathenge said. “Other negative influences include inflexible working hours, working till late and during weekends, and unsatisfactory working conditions.
“There is also lack of support from colleagues and employers,” she said. “Favoritism and discrimination by the employers hurt workers. They feel work demands and pressures that don’t match their knowledge. Add to that inadequate health and safety policies.”
As the internet becomes one of the emerging workplaces, it must share the blame as a major cause of mental health problems.
“The internet encourages social comparison,” Mathenge said. “Many people don’t understand that others don’t share their failures or the challenges they go through. Corporations use the internet to market to us, trying to take advantage of the weaknesses we see in ourselves.”
Poor communication in the workplace compounds mental-health cases.
“This contributes to a number of issues, which can be the risk factors to mental-health problems,” Mathenge said. “A culture of distrust grows where messages are passed that were not meant to be.
“Damaged or strained relationship between employees and employers due to poor communication can increase the risk of mental-health problems,” she said.
Rated as one of the causes of work-related mental-health problems, bullying also has to be fought back.
“Twenty percent of employees who are targets of bullies remain silent about their experiences,” Mathenge said. “This is because of fear of losing the job, especially if the bully is in a senior position.
“Forty percent of people targeted by a bully experience stress-related problems,” she said. “This shows that bullying is a major contributor to work-related stress. Each organization should have rules and regulations on how to deal with cases of bullying.”
She suggested these steps to counteract bullies:
- Confront bullies, describe their behavior.
- Tell bullies how their behavior affects you.
- Inform them that you won’t put up with their behavior in the future.
“If the behavior continues, tell the management,” Mathenge said. “Document the bully’s actions, noting time, date and details of the incident. If it’s via phone, do not delete recordings. Keep them as evidence.”
Problems at work invariably find their way home.
“’Don’t take work stress home,’ they say,” Mathenge said. “But after a long day at work, many of us find ourselves taking out our stress on children and spouses. We allow work stress to become home stress, often at the expense of our families.”
She offered ways to minimize taking work stress home:
- Confine your work to a particular time and location. If your work constantly seeps into your home life, things aren’t going the right way. Make a rule to not work at home.
- Develop good mobile device habits and rules. if you work from your phone, maybe you can have two separate phones: one for work and one for personal use. Turn off your work phone at night and during the weekends.
“Establish a good support network,” Mathenge said. “Apart from your family, have a network of friends and mentors who can help manage your professional stress.
“Surveys show that people with strong support networks have low-stress levels,” she said. “Have people to lean on when you’re stressed. If the stress is too much, seek professional help.”
She urged workers to draw a bright line between times on the job and off.
“Try not to carry work home,” Mathenge said. “If you work from home, make one of your rooms an office, and work from there. Take short breaks, and involve yourself in other activities.”