The Malta Independent 4 October 2022, Tuesday
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Businesses should put their money where their mouth is on mental health at workplace – psychologist

Marc Galdes Sunday, 14 August 2022, 09:00 Last update: about 3 months ago

Psychologist Patrick Psaila states that businesses should “put their money where their mouth is” when talking about the importance of mental health at the workplace.

“They need to have a corporate wellness programme in place, which means that it gives a clear message to employees, that it's okay to speak up if you are having mental health issues,” Psaila, a director of PsyPotential Ltd, said.

It has to be very clear that in no way are workers going to be judged or penalised, rather they should be given the necessary support. The corporate wellness programme should include educational sessions, and counselling services if necessary, he added.

In addition, he emphasised that businesses should realise that mental health issues are “like any other illness”. “Just as you wouldn't be ashamed of saying that you're suffering from a physical condition, there's nothing wrong with saying that you're dealing with a mental health issue.”

The Malta Independent on Sunday sat down with Psaila to discuss the most recent 2022 Misco survey on Employee Wellbeing at the Workplace, which displayed a significant increase in the respondents stating that they have mental health issues and others saying that they are not unwinding after work.

Initially, Psaila was asked about the high number (79%) of respondents who reported to have suffered from mental health issues at the workplace, and why this percentage reflects a 16% increase from the year before.

He stated that there is the possibility that this increase came due to there being more awareness about mental health today.

"There's also the fact that with awareness comes destigmatisation so where before it was something that people were ashamed of and didn't talk about, that has now improved. It's considered less of a taboo subject to talk about and admit to having mental health issues. If we had to look at the previous years I doubt how much the prevalence of depression and anxiety has actually increased because of the pandemic. But it could be."

Additionally, there are a high number of people who are stressed which is the main contributing factor to mental health issues. The survey further revealed that the respondents are mainly stressed due to tight deadlines, work pressure and a heavy workload.

"In this day and age tight deadlines, work pressure and a heavy workload are what is expected. It is the norm,” he said.

He indicated that the question should be "whether they are realistic and whether the employer provides the right structures and support systems to meet those deadlines and workload. That to me is critical".

"If we talk about mental health at work the responsibility belongs to both the employer and the employees,” he said.

Psaila stressed the importance of having “psychological safety” within the workplace. He described this as being a critical responsibility of the employer.

“This means an environment where there is absolute respect, people are valued, and there is no bullying or belittling or humiliation. So for example, when an employee makes a mistake they don't need to be afraid of admitting they made a mistake, the bosses will treat it as something to work from.”

He elaborated by saying that this also refers to “the working conditions, working hours, workplace environment, teamwork, relationships, and so on".

However, he further stated that the employee also has a responsibility to manage their lives and take care of their own mental health.

“I think our lifestyle choices and what we do, not only during work but also after, have a major impact on how we cope with stress. Let's take the most basic example: a lifestyle that includes regular exercise. Science tells us that that is a huge stress buffer. If people go into a lifestyle where they just go home, sit on the couch and watch TV, or even worse, start working again, then the accumulation of stress hormones doesn't recover and it won’t go away."

He added that things like exercise, hobbies, relationships and/or socialising are critical for our mental wellbeing.

But why is there such a high number of respondents who do not unwind after work (62%), and why out of these, 76% believe that they do not need to unwind after work?

"I think that it’s partly lack of awareness and education about wellness. As a culture, historically we had lifestyles that didn't really need extra effort to maintain wellbeing because the lifestyles were relatively simple, relatively healthy. Nowadays that has all changed. The demand of work and the demands of reality have grown to a point where unless we make an intentional effort to take care of ourselves we end up getting carried away by the current."

"Non-traditional working methods, including now remote working, mean that very often we're switched on all the time, in terms of work. So unless we get used to creating pockets of sanity where we can unwind and look after ourselves and we insert them intentionally in our day, our week, our month, we could end up not realising that we're burning out."

“Stress is a given, it's not going to go away, it's here to stay.” Psaila highlighted two main points that are critical to aid our mental health: "preventing burnouts and building resilience".

He pointed out that burnouts precede mental health issues; therefore, it is important that you prevent this from happening.

Building resilience is important to build the necessary tools and competencies to face pressure and bounce back from adversity.

Moreover, we followed up on this point by asking him about the negative effects of unwinding by divulging into unhealthy habits.

He said that these types of methods are called “numbing”. These are “unhealthy methods that we use to relax and unwind. They are easy and accessible and they make us feel better short-term, but long-term, they cause damage.”

He gave examples of abusing alcohol, abusing various types of drugs, excessive shopping and spending, social media addiction, over-eating, and so on.

"You're doing something that serves to numb the pain and short-term it's very easy and very accessible. It doesn't take the discipline of going for yoga practice or Thai chi or going to the gym or going for a run. You get the same immediate benefits but long-term they're damaging and unfortunately because we tend to be a bit lazy we go for the easy solution, which in the short-term helps but in the long-term doesn't."

The survey showed that 53% of respondents do not feel confident disclosing unmanageable stress or mental health problems to their current employer or manager. Also, 72% stated that they never disclosed any such problems with their employer or manager.

"Although it is destigmatised, we still look at it as potentially shameful or a sign of weakness. If I speak up and tell people that I'm struggling, [...] it might affect the way they regard me and it might work against me."

He understands that it is easier said than done, however, he believes that it is the employer or manager’s duty to adjust the work accordingly for anybody who might be struggling with mental health issues.

What would convince a business to invest the time and money in their employees’ mental health?

"There are models and there is research that shows that when companies employ corporate wellness programmes, there is a business case for it – the decreased sickness absence, the decreased number of people who leave because they cannot take it and the fact that people are more loyal. Basically, if you feel that your company is looking after you and cares for you as an individual, not just as a number, chances are that you're going to be more loyal and that you're going to work better and you're going to want to give it your best."

He further argued that these methods are profitable, not immediately, but the impact will heavily aid businesses in the long run, especially with regard to attracting talent and employee retention.

He made reference to the “great resignation” that we’re suffering from at the moment because people are just leaving and changing jobs. He stressed the importance for businesses to implement corporate wellness programmes which also heavily ties into a retention strategy because people feel like they will be taken care of at work.

"I would add that even if it didn't, we should do it out of ethical practice and out of value-based ethical leadership – we should treat people like human beings."

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