‘Mental health hurts economy badly’

KUALA LUMPUR: The stigma and ignorance of mental health problems is more than a tragic social shortcoming. It also hurts our economy in a big way because the inability and unwillingness to deal with these issues leads to poor productivity and additional costs.

How major is the economic damage? A study by a local mental health organisation offers a staggering figure – RM14.46bil.

According to Relate Mental Health Malaysia, that was the estimated business cost of mental health disorders among employees in 2018. This is equivalent to about 1% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) that year. And Relate says the actual cost may be more.

Titled “Workplace mental health – The business cost”, the study found that 68% (close to RM10bil) of the RM14.46bil was the result of workers turning up to work while feeling unwell. The economy lost a further RM3.28bil due to absence, while the balance of RM1.34bil was because of staff turnover.

Relate’s study estimated the loss in productivity and the extra costs incurred by businesses based on three factors linked to mental health problems: staff turnover, absence and presence (working while unwell).

“The total business cost can be broken down to these three segments and it adds up to RM14.46bil, which is more than 1% of the GDP.

“I want to emphasise here that this is a very conservative estimate. If you look at global trends, it’s much higher, ” said Relate founder Dr Chua Sook Ning.

She was speaking at a press conference held after “The Business Costs of Mental Health” forum here yesterday.

Deputy Women, Family and Community Development Minister Hannah Yeoh was also at the event.

Citing the World Health Organisation, the report pointed out that depression and anxiety cost US$1.15 trillion (RM4.75 trillion)) in productivity across the world annually.

Relate is a non-profit organisation that advocates mental health awareness through public education, research and community service.

A session during the forum featured Dr Chua, Qualitas Medical Group occupational health services manager Dr Azwan Abdullah Al-Hadi and Sunway Group chief human resources officer Foo Shiang Wyne.

According to Dr Chua, employees in Asian countries were likely to show physical symptoms such as fatigue and muscle aches, rather than concede that they were either depressed or anxious.

“If you have an employee who’s in a lot of physical pain, that could be a warning sign. They also start to zone out, miss deadlines and become more forgetful, ” she added.

She said employees were reluctant to seek help due to a false cultural suspicion that there was a lack of confidentiality when they chose to confide about the mental health conditions.

She pointed out that mental disorders had been on the rise.

In 2005,10.5% of the population were affected. In 2015, the proportion was 29%.

She lamented that many companies do not know how to address employees with mental issues despite the increasing figures, adding that this had caused many individuals to miss out on job opportunities or get low performance appraisal scores.

Dr Azwan said it was very challenging for medical officers to accurately diagnose mental health problems because patients often turned up with psychosomatic disorders.

“This is where patients have so many mental health issues at the workplace, but these are presented in the physical form of headaches, body aches and other non-specific symptoms, ” he said.

He lamented the fact that very few health insurance providers covered mental health and added that there was no legislation that compelled employers to address workplace mental health issues.

“So, we are facing a hard situation at the ground level to execute programmes on mental health, ” he said.

“Most cases referred to the hospital are already considered severe. That shows the importance of the role of general practitioners and frontliners in early detection, ” he added.

In the session, Foo shared her experience at Sunway Group, where managers and employees were trained to look out for signs of psychological problems among colleagues.

“We run training programmes for managers across the group once every two weeks. (We encourage them) to have short conversations with their staff, just to find out how they are doing, ” she said.

“Coming back to mental health, nothing beats education. (People need to be) more aware of the symptoms. They need to be able to notice if there is something not right with their employees.”

In her speech during the forum, Yeoh said employers must be proactive enough to address mental health.

“Don’t wait for the government to come up with guidelines, policies and laws. It will take time, ” she added.

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