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Mental health in the workplace

Gloria Ogunbadejo

People are working everyday in extremely traumatic, stressful situations in their work places that is damaging to both their physical and mental health. Even in the western world where mental health is discussed more freely, it still has a certain level of stigma attached to it. In Nigeria, it is still very much a taboo subject, even more so when it pertains to the workplace.

A close relative of mine was put under extreme duress by difficult, incompetent, megalomaniac bosses and she suffered unbearably trying to manage a huge work load as well as coping under the tyranny of these people. There was nowhere to go to get any support and I saw the effects of this chronic siege on her wellbeing for many years. She will not be unique in her experience.

Research in the UK suggests that at least one in six workers is experiencing common mental health in the work place, which will include anxiety and depression. It might not be understood, discussed or catered for by employers, but many employees contend with feeling scared, confused, and experience many physical symptoms of mental ill health at work.

There are some simple steps you can take for yourself to improve your mental wellbeing at work. There is strong evidence that tells us that feeling valued by others and close to people is a fundamental human need and bodes well to enhancing people’s interaction in the world as well as acting as a buffer against mental ill health for people of all ages.

  • Try making an effort to talk to someone directly instead of sending an email if and when possible.
  • Go out of your way to speak to someone you’ve never spoken to at work.
  • Engage in small conversations with people and try to be as authentic as possible. None of the fake stuffs we do all day.
  • Ask a colleague to lunch in a platonic way. It could be someone of the same sex.
  • If possible go for a short work at lunch time.
  • You could also make an effort if you need to speak to a colleague to walk to their desk instead of calling on the phone or emailing.
  • Get a plant for your work space.
  • Choose a day to clear the clutter in your work space.
  • Take notice of your surroundings and the people around you. See what you can do to make it better. Maybe you can help someone who is in need and lend your support by just enquiring about their wellbeing if you notice they may be struggling.

A woman’s nightmare story at work

Dear Gloria,

I want to share my life experience in my workplace with you. I have worked in the same place for over 15 years. Please do not use my name or the place where I work in the paper for obvious reasons. I am a graduate and I consider myself above average intelligence and I am very competent at my profession. I am also blessed with generous feminine attributes. I say so because I know that is the right thing to say but the reality of my experience in life since the age of 10 is that those gifts from God have caused me problems all my life. Relatives have tried to have sex with me in addition to almost every man I have met. I grew up thinking I must have been a bad person to have something on my body that made men and women behave so differently to me.

My female relatives and friends at school treated me coldly or were always accusing me of things and punishing me. It was not until I became much older that I understood what effect or impact a woman’s physical attributes had on men and the competition or threats it had to other women.

My problem started the first day I went for an interview for a senior position in an organisation. There were four men and a woman who interviewed me. I could tell immediately the woman did not like me. I could feel the men were not even listening to me and were giving me very inappropriate looks. I had excellent credentials and was well suited for the position, so I was confident in what I had to offer.

I was told the MD had to make the final decision and I would have to see him. When I met him, he told me that I was very intelligent and I could advance far in my career if I listened to what he told me to do. That was the beginning of my nightmare.

He started pestering me for sex and when I refused, he immediately started making my life hell. I was required  to do more work than necessary and my work was never good enough. He took away privileges that came with my position. I was in tears every day and there was nothing I could do or no one to tell. After six months of this hell, I was not sleeping. I was losing weight and took ill. My MD continued to pester me and promise me a relief and advancement in my position if gave in to him. By the eighth month I was exhausted, frustrated and sick so I gave in to his advances.

What I was unaware of is that this kind of behaviour is normal for this MD and everyone was aware of it. So it was apparent to everyone when I accepted his advances because he bragged about it. I became a pariah and laughing stock in the office. The other men then started treated me with disdain because the MD had finished with me and they all wanted their piece.

It felt like being raped in public and there is no one to help you. Some of the other women had also been through the same experience so they understood but women sometimes can be very hateful and make life even more difficult for other women.

I am still at my job but I feel like a battered woman. I don’t enjoy my job. I lost all the confidence and ambition I had when I started, I feel used and abused. I feel depressed and unhappy.

Please can you help me? I need to understand how to cope with how I am feeling. I don’t think anybody can help me in the office but I just want to help my own mental health.

I think you are offering a vital service and I have read many of your articles that have helped me a lot. I try not to miss your column every Sunday. 


Some advice for employers

So how can managers respond to mental health issues in the workplace?

Imagine a call centre employee, we’ll call her Sasha. She’s been “snapping” at her clients. Sasha’s manager knows she has a mental health condition, and has been struggling lately with medication side effects.

A “workplace adjustment” is negotiated. Sasha will take a break from dealing with clients for two hours a day, and do admin work instead.

The manager assures Sasha this is a temporary arrangement, she is a valued employee, and the goal is to get her back into her original role as soon as she feels ready. They’ll catch up in a fortnight to review her situation.

This is textbook: how a manager who is aware of mental health conditions, but not frightened of them, might respond.

A less skilled manager might say: “I’m not a counsellor. I’m not a psychiatrist. I can’t deal with this.”

Relax — you don’t need to be those things, says Eliza Oakley, a lead facilitator with a program called Mindful Employer, which delivers workplace training on mental health issues.

Managers need to build the confidence to ask employees how they are. There is no diagnosis required, no qualifications, just as there would not be with a broken limb.

DO: Observe employees’ changes — lateness, mood, perhaps a dishevelled appearance, performance — and ask if everything is OK. Managers often fear that they are overstepping the mark. But there is nothing wrong with checking in with someone.

DON’T: Presume anything about the sort of answer you will get. It might take several conversations before an employee says “Well, actually …” If there are performance issues, still always start with asking: “How are you?” A genuine concern, built up over time, is more likely to make an employee comfortable to disclose.

DO: Step in early and demonstrate you care. Don’t wait until a behaviour change has affected the whole team. Early support is key.

DON’T: Make judgments about the person’s response. The person might say their divorce is troubling them. They might say they are not feeling motivated. That requires support.

DO: Offer referral, without requiring the person to seek help. “I notice you’re angry,” an employer might say. “Are you OK? Can we help?” It’s a manager’s job to refer the person to help, but it’s a soft referral, Ms Oakley says. It could just a reminder that there is an employee assistance program for support on any issue. But managers should leave it up to the person to choose.

DON’T: Go quickly into performance management mode. Ms Oakley says the traditional approach to lateness, unfinished reports or absence is that “it’s not acceptable; we need to get a performance management plan in place”. But that should not be the starting point.

DO: Put mental health on meeting agendas, refer to it in e-newsletters, talk about it with occupational health and safety teams. Familiarity will reduce stigma.

DON’T: Lead a workplace culture where careless comments are tolerated. “If someone in a tea room says: ‘Jim is away because he’s depressed but he’s really just a slacker’, pull them up on it,” says Ms Oakley. Ditto with the person who is feeling moody and jokes that they are having a bipolar day.

And some advice for employees

Prepare yourself before approaching your manager with your health concerns. You are only obligated to disclose if it is a safety issue at work, or you’re unable to meet the requirements of the job.

Disclosing may be difficult. Prior to the conversation, organise someone to debrief with.

Communicate what you might need, whether it is, “I sometimes might need to take leave,” or “I’ll need Wednesday afternoons from 3:00pm for the next six weeks to see my specialist.”

Culled from

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