Mental health is a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community (WHO definition).

In practical terms, mental well-being is how you handle and respond to challenges in the day to day life, how you think, how you express your emotions and how you thrive in the face of adversity. By identifying what triggers your mental health and having effective coping strategies, you’re able to live a fulfilled life, and are able to create a balance between your emotions, behavior and actions.

So, today we’d like to pose the question: How are you doing? 

Like, really doing? 

Most people spend a  big portion of their time at work, it is therefore fair to say that the work environment plays a key role in influencing one’s mental health, and in turn their productivity, as well as how they relate to others inside and outside the workplace. Ideally, the workplace should be a place that provides employees with a positive experience, sense of fulfillment and provides them with a good work-life balance. Lack of these can contribute to mental illness, among other contributing factors.

What is a mental illness, you may ask? Mental illness is any condition or disease that influences the way a person thinks, feels, behaves, and/or relates to others and to his or her surroundings. Examples of mental illnesses include depression, anxiety, panic attacks, eating disorders, addictions, and so forth.

Globally, anxiety and depression have been found to be the leading mental disorders encountered in the workplace. Read more about these two disorders in this article to get a better understanding of their differences. Here in Kenya, according to research by Nation Newsplex;  one in four Kenyans is likely to suffer from a mental illness at some point in their life.  

Why you should care as an employer:

Integrating mental wellness interventions in your organization’s policies and creating a safe space for employees to be honest about their mental state is detrimental to having a happy, engaged and productive workforce for different reasons:

  • Caring about your employees’ mental well being increases their engagement levels and employees feel more positive about their work. Why? Because they’re able to show up to work with enthusiasm, and a feeling of purpose and ownership for their work, and what employer doesn’t want that?   
  • Having a non-toxic work environment increases productivity. A recent WHO-lead study gauges that depression and anxiety issues cost the worldwide economy US$ 1 trillion every year in lost productivity. Imagine how many non-productive meetings happen every day, and how many hours and days of work are lost when employees brood over unresolved issues? 
  • The new generation of employees really cares about mental health, and if you can credibly position yourself as an employer who cares equally as much, you will attract and retain some fantastic talent! 

As a manager who wants to take a few first steps you may be asking yourself a few questions right now:

  • What are some of the factors that lead to and/or trigger mental illness in the workplace? 
  • What support can I provide to employees facing mental health issues? 
  • How can I promote a culture that enhances the mental well being of my employees?  

Let’s find out together. Shall we?

Factors that trigger mental illness in the workplace: 

  • Lack of effective communication – In order for employees to understand their roles, and expectations; managers have to clearly, accurately and timely inform them of what is expected of them for them to be valuable in the organizations work. Failure to which, employees feel frustrated and stressed about not knowing the purpose of their work and this can greatly affect their well being. 
  • Inadequate or lack of role clarification for employees- few things are as frustrating as having a job where roles and expectations are not well defined. For employees to add value; they NEED to know what is expected of them. And no, just giving them a document with a list of things is not enough. Managers need to sit down with their employees and establish clear outcomes from the get go. Otherwise, an employee will spend hours, days, possibly weeks feeling like they are not serving any meaningful purpose and this can deteriorate their mental wellness. 
  • Not having a work-life balance – Organizations are of course focused on achieving the goals they have set for themselves in order to achieve profitability, to create impact, and and to fulfill client/consumer needs. However, imposing these goals on employees to an extent where their work life balance is pretty much non-existent is unfair to their wellness.  I have personally gone out to lunch with a friend who had carried a laptop in case their boss needed them to do something urgently, on a weekend if I may add, so our scrumptious meals were joined by a laptop on the table with excel sheets that needed data input and editing and complaints about how this consistent behavior has affected his mental health.  
  • Limited autonomy at work; otherwise known as micro management- Now, if you’ve ever been micro-managed, you know how dreading it can be, to always be on the edge about your supervisor constantly breathing on your neck about how, when and what you are supposed to do- at all times! This approach of managing people creates a strong sense of fear, discomfort and causes rapid anxiety. 
  • Harassment and Bullying – violence is not always representative of physical assault. Threatening team members verbally or in written form, humiliating them using condescending language and actions, intimidating them, or sexually harassing them are all forms of violence in the workplace. These behaviors and actions decrease an employees confidence and self esteem, and in extreme cases cause debilitating anxiety and depression.  
  • Not paying employees on time, or not paying them at all – depriving your employees of their ability to take care of their financial responsibilities and enjoy any other pleasurable activities outside of work can trigger mental illnesses, reduce productivity and increase turn over. 
  • Lack of recognition – not recognizing your team members successes reduces their confidence and demoralizes them. This can cause emotional distress if they feel like their contribution is not being acknowledged and can even lead them to resign. 

These are just some of the things that could tremendously affect an employee’s mental well being. Learn more about the symptoms to look out for that may be caused by mental health issues. 

So what support can you provide as a manager in the event that your employee(s) mental health is suffering?

  • Educate yourself about the risk factors that lead to mental illnesses (anxiety and depression) and reflect upon the culture you have shaped for your employees; how is it contributing to mental wellness, or lack of it? Possessing this information enables you to create initiatives that can improve employees well being. 
  • Discuss mental wellness in the workplace. Understandably, it’s not an easy topic of discussion. However; creating a space for these conversations encourages team members to be open about it and seek help where need be and reduces the stigma that surrounds mental health. 
  • Support your team members efforts to seek help. This could be in the form of a day off, providing flexible work hours for them to pursue activities that improve their well being (fitness, yoga class etc) and if possible, hiring a psychological counselor to support them at work and provide them with self help tools they can use to improve. 
  • Provide opportunities for your HR department to receive training on how to identify symptoms of mental illness and manage them successfully. 
  • Organizing bonding activities. Activities such as potluck lunches, birthday celebrations, or outings create a sense of togetherness and trust, which can enable people to open up about any issues that they are facing affecting their mental health. 

How can you promote a culture that enhances the mental well being of your employees?

  • Hire managers that won’t affect your teams well being. Managers inevitably influence team members emotions, thoughts, actions and ultimately their mental state. When assessing managers; establish a criteria that show you what people management approach they use and compare it to the vision you have for your organization and that of your employees well being and how they can shape a desired culture that promotes a healthy workforce. In addition; you can include this in their on-boarding plan – what skills and knowledge do they need to acquire to enhance an environment that promotes good mental health? 
  • Fire bullies. Yes, we said it. And this does not necessarily have to be managers; it can also be peers who have a strong sense of entitlement and project it on other team members, thus making them feel insufficient and dread coming to work. If more than one person is complaining about the behavior and actions of a certain employee; its safe to say that you should examine this more deeply in a serious way. 
  • Be the example. Employees emulate what their leaders practice. Encouraging employees to take their leave days, take their lunch break away from their computers and take work breaks is critical. As a leader, it’s important that employees see you unplugging by taking breaks during work, taking leave days and not responding to emails at odd hours of the night. As the old saying goes; practice what you preach. 
  • Recognize when an employee does a good job. Team members want to know that  their work matters, and that they are adding value to the organization. Not only does this boost their productivity, but it also boosts their mental well being because they feel appreciated. 
  • Give your employees autonomy in their work. We’re not saying that you let your employees run wild and let them do whatever they want. However, by empowering them through asking for their input and giving them a clear role in decision making, you enable them to know how they can achieve set goals and KPIs therefore increasing their engagement and creativity. 
  • Allocate roles based on your team’s strengths and interests. Consider a scenario where you give an introverted team member an external facing role and give an extrovert an internal facing role. By allocating roles that are not aligned to your team members strengths, personalities, or interests – you are making their work draining to them, and in turn draining their mental energy to focus and be productive. When assessing candidates; ensure you understand what their interests are and give them roles where they will add the most value and be successful.

We’d love to hear from you: How are you creating a space for emotional well-being and mental health at work?

Email us on – we’d love to create another blog post with more real life examples and good case practices that organizations across East Africa are using!