‘Days off from work for mental health reasons should be a norm’

PETALING JAYA: There is a need to provide “mental health days” for employees to help them reduce stress and burnout.

According to a survey by human resource solutions provider Employment Hero, 58% of employees reported that they suffer from burnout and 51% said they have an average or even poor work-life balance.

Its Employee Wellness Report released last year polled over 1,000 Malaysian employees.

Malaysian Mental Health Association president and consultant psychiatrist Datuk Dr Andrew Mohanraj said giving mental health days off would benefit both employees and employers.

“The employee who comes back to work recharged and healthier can contribute towards increased productivity. This also helps prevent potential burnout, particularly in high-performing individuals.

“Loss of productivity in the workplace is not only due to absenteeism but significantly more due to presenteeism, which is when employees are present but unable to focus on their jobs.

“In some cases, such employees may also claim overtime for staying on after working hours,” he said.

Dr Mohanraj, who is also a member of the US Academy of Organisational and Occupational Psychiatrists, highlighted the need for employees to have both planned and unplanned mental health days off.

He said it is important for organisations to adhere to internal policies that ensure non-discrimination due to a mental health condition.

Companies, he said, must also mainstream the conversation on mental health in the workplace so that employees are more willing to open up.

“Organisations covering medical expenses towards mental healthcare is also one way to recognise that both physical health and mental health are two sides of the same coin,” he added.

Medical Practitioners Coalition Association of Malaysia president Dr Raj Kumar Maharajah said doctors are allowed to give patients a medical certificate on the basis of mental health.

He said it was not uncommon to see young workers aged between 25 and 40 walking into the consultation room complaining of medical problems such as diarrhoea or body aches every so often when, in fact, they just needed a break due to stress or burnout.

“We can easily tell from the patient’s history and how often they come in.

“We feel compassion for these patients because as family doctors, we know these patients and their families. We will also advise them to get professional help,” he said.

Dr Raj Kumar said it is important to create a societal culture that is supportive of mental health.

“Unfortunately, there is some stigmatisation here if you have mental problems and it can affect your social network and career,” he added.

Legal practitioner Chia Swee Yik said that under the Employment Act 1955, the protection for health at work is limited to physical health, mainly the protection against the “threat of danger to a person by violence” or “disease”.

However, he said many do not realise that in Malaysia, the foremost legislation that provides for safety and health – including mental health – of every employee at work is the Occupational Safety and Health Act (Osha) 1994.

Despite this, Osha only covers the 10 sectors under its First Schedule, which includes manufacturing, construction, utilities, hotels and restaurants, transport, public service and a few others.

“Osha should be amended in Parliament to widen its scope,” said Chia.

He added that it is also possible that mental conditions could be treated as a form of disability such as under the United Kingdom's Equality Act 2010, which would require the employer to make reasonable adjustments to help employees get back to work.

Besides using legislation to provide more supportive environments to foster mental well-being, Chia said each employer could also adopt mental health policies at work.“Generally speaking, we seldom hear of employers accepting stress at work as being a medical condition justifying sick leave in Malaysia, but they would ask employees to go on annual leave instead lest it sets a precedent.

“But with positive mental health, people are more likely to work productively, interact well with colleagues and find it easier to adapt to change. Staff who are supported by their employer are also more likely to be able to stay in work,” he said.

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