Mental health in the workplace

NO workplace is immune to mental health issues – and their impact in psychological, social and economic terms is high.

Globally, it was reported that an estimated 264 million people are suffering from depression, one of the leading causes of disability.

The cost of mental illness has been estimated at US$2.5trillion (RM10,282trillion) in 2010 and is projected to reach US$6trillion (RM24.7trillion) in 2030. In Malaysia, there has been a three-fold increase in mental health problems among the population over the past 20 years. If we apply the same projection, than the estimated loss for Malaysia would be US$10.6bil (RM43.6trillion) for 2010 before it will rise to US$24.3bil (RM99.9bil) by 2030.

A study conducted by the Education Ministry in 2017 showed that 4.4% – or 2,123 – teachers were identified as experiencing moderate stress levels while civil servants also scored badly in the Malaysia Psychological Wellbeing Index survey was conducted in August 2018.

According to the Malaysian Health System Research report (March 2016), mental illness is a leading cause of economic loss at the individual, family, employer, health system, and national levels due to direct and indirect health costs, absenteeism, lost productivity while at work, and decreased income – all of which can result in a reduced national economic output.

As I stressed when addressing participants at Malaysia’s first Mental Health Experiential Conference (# MyMHEC2019) in Petaling Jaya on June 19, mental health in the workplace should no longer be ignored as it could cost employers and the country billions of ringgit if not properly addressed.

The government and employers must be aware that neglecting mental health and psychosocial factors in the workplace is not only bad to the individual worker but also directly affects the productivity and output of any organisation.

Accidents in workplaces are not only caused by poor work safety practices but are also due to mental health issues. Such issues are caused by a combination of factors such as work loads, work environment, and the organisational factor.

Workplace stress is defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as “the response people may have when presented with work demands and pressures that are not matched to their knowledge and abilities and which challenge their ability to cope”.

There are many types of such stress: job insecurity, low control over work, low support from coworkers, dissatisfaction with work, and problems associated with depression and anxiety.

Studies show that workplaces that promote good mental health and support people with mental disorders are more likely to reduce absenteeism, increase productivity and benefit from associated economic gains.

More young workers nowadays are stressed out or experiencing symptoms of stress-related illnesses such as anxiety or depression due to life experiences or environmental factors. Struggling to cope with work, new financial commitments, family expectations and relationships are among the topics of concern among young adults.

It is not only happening here but all around the globe as the demands of living in current times add to stress.

It is normal for fresh graduates to wish for a permanent job with a handsome salary and a dream car and house but life is not always smooth sailing. While some young working adults might soldier on through trials and tribulations, others struggle with emotional and physical issues as soon as they leave university, sometimes even before entering the working world.

Though each generation faces its own set of problems, dilemmas faced by young adults in the present time appear to have wide-ranging social and economic implications, with a rising number being diagnosed with depression, anxiety or other mental health problems.

A healthy workplace can be described as one where workers and managers actively contribute to the working environment by promoting and protecting the health, safety and well-being of all employees

Mental health interventions should be delivered as part of an integrated health and wellbeing strategy that covers prevention, early identification, support and rehabilitation. Key to success is involving stakeholders and staff at all levels when monitoring the effectiveness of such efforts.

All parties should also strive to stop the stigmatisation of mentally ill persons who are often regarded as “orang gila” or crazy people.

Instead of insulting them, the community members should help those with mental disorders to get counselling services or psychiatric treatment.

Prevention in the early stage can certainly reduce the likelihood of people with mental problems turning violent or doing extreme things including murder and committing suicide.

Family members, office colleagues and the local community should know how to identify the symptoms and ways to help those who are suffering from mental illness. Most are not prepared to cope with learning that loved ones or office mates have a mental illness.

As for the sufferers, life can become physically and emotionally trying, and their illness can make them feel vulnerable to the opinions and judgments of others.

WHO has stressed that organisations have a responsibility to support individuals with mental disorders in either continuing or returning to work.

Some of the initiatives that may help such individuals include flexible hours, job redesign, addressing negative workplace dynamics, and supportive and confidential communication with the management.

Research has also shown that unemployment, particularly long term unemployment, can have a detrimental impact on mental health.

As the country’s leading institute for occupational safety and health, the National Institute of Occupa-tional Safety and Health (Niosh) has introduced several programmes to help employers and their staff manage mental health in the workplace in addition to organising various health promotional programmes.

One programme is the mental health module, which was introduced in collaboration with the Health Ministry. It is part of Niosh’s Total Wellness and Health Promotion Programme, in which employers and their employees will learn about mental health issues and adopt the best strategies to manage the problem.

Apart from that, they will also be exposed to healthy lifestyles and learn about obesity and other non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and hypertension which can also contribute to mental health problems.

It is important to know that early diagnosis and treatment greatly increases the chances of individuals affected by mental illness will regain a reasonable state of health and wellbeing, and a satisfying quality of life.

There is a need to implement the Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) which can provide both prevention and early intervention for employees affected by stress or emotional and mental health issues that jeopardise job performance.

Funds spent on EAPs have documented investment returns in such areas as productivity and work performance. Companies are finding that investing in employees’ emotional wellbeing can mean a healthier bottom line.

It was predicted that mental health problems will become the second biggest health problem affecting Malaysians after heart disease by 2020, unless proper measures are taken to address the issue.

Because of the stigma associated with mental disorders, employers need to ensure that individuals feel supported and able to ask for support in continuing with or returning to work and are provided with the necessary resources to do their job.

Article 27 of The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities provides a legally-binding global framework for promoting the rights of people with disabilities, including psychosocial disabilities. It recognises that every person with a disability has the right to work, should be treated equally and not be discriminated against, and should be provided with support in the workplace.



National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)

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