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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Injugu

When Employees Aren't Thriving, Companies Don't Either! Try Mental Health Care


By Catherine Karega-Injugu| Updated September 19, 2023

A few weeks ago, I along with some of my friends and colleagues did a webinar hosted by the USIU-Africa alumni. We talked about mental health in the workplace. We talked deeply about some of the practical ways poor mental health shows up at work and possible ways you could personally improve your own coping skills. The following is a summary of that discussion.


Why is it important to talk about mental health in the workplace?

Roni: The fact that people spend around 90,000 hours at work over a lifetime highlights the substantial impact of the workplace on mental health. It underscores the need for open discussions about mental well-being at work.

Work-related stress, tight deadlines, and demanding bosses can lead to anxiety and depression.

Prioritizing mental health in the workplace allows employers to reduce stress, offer support, and reduce the stigma around mental health issues.

Encouraging open conversations about mental health not only benefits individual employees but also fosters a more positive work environment, improving overall morale and productivity.

What kind of impact did COVID-19 have on people’s mental health and how is it showing up in the office?

Before the pandemic, employees commonly faced workplace stressors such as deadlines, intense workloads, and competition. However, during the initial shock and anxiety phase of the pandemic, employees grappled with fear of the unknown, health concerns, and abrupt shifts to remote work. Isolation and loneliness emerged as a prevalent issue as individuals adhered to social distancing measures, leading to feelings of isolation and disconnection from colleagues and friends.

As the pandemic persisted, work-life boundaries blurred, and the distinction between professional and personal life became challenging to maintain. This increased stress levels, as employees juggled the demands of work, childcare, and household responsibilities. Economic insecurity added another layer of stress, as job security became uncertain for many.

Grief and loss were also significant factors as individuals mourned the loss of loved ones, routines, and a sense of normalcy. Post-COVID, while the world gradually reopened, mixed emotions prevailed, with employees facing adjustment challenges, health concerns, and a reevaluation of work-life balance.

The pandemic has reshaped workplace dynamics, leading to new norms and uncertainty about the future. Employers now need to recognize these evolving mental health challenges and implement supportive measures, such as flexible work arrangements and mental health resources, to address the enduring impact of COVID-19 on employees' mental well-being in the office.

Some recent phenomena related to work globally include the Great Resignation, Languishing and Toxic Productivity. Can you speak more on these in the context of the Kenyan workplace?

These phenomena have made their mark on the Kenyan workplace in some ways.

The Great Resignation is characterized by employees voluntarily leaving their jobs in pursuit of better opportunities or improved work-life balance. In Kenya, as elsewhere, factors such as changing career priorities, a desire for greater job satisfaction, and the recognition of the importance of work-life balance have contributed to this trend.

Languishing, represents a state of feeling stagnant and unproductive. In Kenya, this phenomenon may arise due to factors unrelated to the pandemic. Employees might experience aimlessness and disengagement, which can impact their motivation and focus.

The pressure for employees to consistently perform at a high level, sometimes to the detriment of their health and well-being, is what you call toxic productivity. Long working hours, excessive stress, and concerns about job security can contribute to a culture of toxic productivity.

What are some of the things that show someone is struggling with their mental health in the workplace?

Marie:

You may observe some behavioral and emotional changes in a colleague who is struggling with their mental health at work.

Behavioral indicators could be in the form of poor communication with colleagues, avoiding team meetings or discussions. There may also be a noticeable decline in work output or missed deadlines; procrastinating work even when not busy; disinterest or declined enthusiasm towards work tasks; and increased absenteeism.

Emotional changes could be frequent or extreme changes in mood; a constant feeling of being overwhelmed or under pressure that is not typical to the expected pressure of everyday work; regularly experiencing dissatisfaction, arguing with colleagues or having difficulties resolving conflicts.

Are there some characteristics of the workplace that can lead to someone's mental health deteriorating?

High work demands combined with an excessive workload and job insecurity can lead to stress and burnout. A workplace environment where negative behavior such as bullying or manipulation are intrinsic to the culture is bound to offer little support, poor communication and high stress levels to employees.

It is also evident that unclear job expectations, conflicting responsibilities and role ambiguity increases stress and anxiety levels in workers.

You talked about personal coping and specifically about healthy and unhealthy coping. What are healthy coping strategies and how does one differentiate between the two?

Nafisa: Coping strategies are actions taken to deal with stress, problems or uncomfortable emotions. These actions could be grouped into two categories; healthy and unhealthy.

  1. Healthy coping strategies are exercise, meditation, seeking professional help etc. which all need commitment.

  2. Unhealthy coping strategies such as drug use, alcohol, social withdrawal, overeating etc are strategies that give instant gratification or relief but are harmful in the long term.

The difference between the two is based on the commitment of habit forming and repetition. According to Viktor Frankl “between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response”.

In choosing the coping strategy one wishes to use, it is imperative to pause before responding or taking action; this pause will help in whether a healthy or unhealthy coping strategies is used.

You also went into spirituality and religion as helpful ways of coping, could you expound more on this?

Though used interchangeably, there’s a critical difference between spirituality and religion. Religion consists of groups gathered under a structure of shared beliefs and rituals whereas spirituality is a search for purpose or meaning often linked to nature or a life force.

The practices of religion and spirituality emphasize forgiveness, compassion and humility that may help mitigate stressors. Spirituality and religion are healthy coping strategies to relieve stress or other challenges.

What are some of the challenges you may face as a professional when trying to implement changes or create a mentally healthy environment in the workplace?

Jacquie: Change takes time. Changing attitudes and core beliefs takes even longer.

My approach when it comes to incorporating changes within the workplace involves explaining the rationale behind a specific program. Moreover, during the conceptualization stage of a program, an evaluation is usually done to match the program objectives to client needs.

Realistically, some mental health challenges tied to the workplace can only be solved at a systemic level. Engaging with stakeholders to address these systemic challenges ensures that basic needs are met. This leaves room for healthy discussions around mental health. Workplaces cannot thrive without everyone's input.


By Catherine Karega-Injugu, MA Clinical Psychology


Veronica 'Roni' Mugure

Is a Clinical Psychologist armed with a passion for the human condition and a love for chocolate. She adds warmth and enchantment to therapy, making self-discovery a delightful journey. She is the founder and lead psychologist at Mulberry Wellness Kenya.

Follow her here https://www.linkedin.com/in/roniwanjagi and here https://instagram.com/mulberrywellnesske

Nafisa Abass

Marie Christie Odoyo

Jacquie Mwaura


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