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Laetitia Mugerwa: Ensuring Your Staff Are Mentally Healthy

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“You can’t fix what you can’t see.”

Perhaps, this saying summarises our inability to understand the best way to find solutions to invisible broken things. Mental health challenges, like depression, rightly fall within the scope of things many struggle to fix due to how invisible they are in nature. Worsened by the adverse challenges in the world today and the dissolution of normalcy, depression cases continue to rise with little to no solution. Consequently, there are more people committing suicide globally.

As a philanthropist, my daily duty is working with populations in Uganda that are often living on the margins of life, excluded from decisions that most affect them. In several organisations, settlements and shelters where I’ve had the privilege to work, I noticed that there’s little attention drawn towards the wellbeing of staff, beneficiaries, individuals of the populations, and volunteers. While many organisations boasted of clear-cut policies encompassing mental health, there is no evidence of any mental health considerations for leaves, day-offs, or recusal from duty. It is easier for a staff member to receive a day of care if they call out physically sick, fractured or visibly incapacitated than one reporting to be stressed, depressed, or traumatised.

Most supervisors I interacted with found it problematic to justify a staff’s leave or day off based on an invisible challenge. The challenge not only reveals reporting gaps but a lack of awareness about the correlation between staff productivity, efficiency and mental health. While organisations within advanced economies are making strides in this right direction by providing, for example, mental health support programs, time offs, and counselling embedded in the culture of their organisations, organisations in countries with underdeveloped economies continue to struggle with dealing with mental health issues. This leads to high staff turnovers, low productivity and efficiency.

Research has shown that depression is one of the leading killers of productivity and efficiency. Most traumatic is the fact that many organisation practices and cultures create environments that shame people who are depressed, making such peoples feel alone and isolated. Quite notable is that work often heightens stress and anxiety and can harm one’s mental health. Work can be a direct cause of depression but a toxic environment often makes depression symptoms worse. In most cases that I interacted with, staff get worried about getting work done promptly and feel guilty if the tasks are not done well hence letting their supervisors down. Without a conducive mental health care environment, staff usually find it hard to talk about how they feel at work because they feel ashamed that they fear being judged.

The work-depression relationship is a reciprocal dichotomy that goes both ways. Depression is likely to impact the ability to perform effectively and get the job well done, and work stress can also contribute to a person becoming depressed. While it remains invisible, traceable causes of depression include high workload, inflexible work hours, tasks that are outside one’s competency, or difficulties with colleagues.

While the attempt to fix what we can’t see is very challenging, we can act by taking baby steps in the right direction. The first step in addressing mental health issues at work can be to create a daily deliberate plan that includes simple but impactful actions to maintain optimism. For individuals, taking time off or a walk outside during a very tight schedule, having a healthy diet and learning to say ‘no’ to one thing that would make the day stressful.

Organisations can increase performance when their staff are healthy, motivated and focused. In this postmodern era, smart employers need to support employees who are experiencing mental health problems to cope and recover. This sends a clear message that standing with and by people when they are experiencing a mental health challenge should not be an option, it should be a part of our culture and values.

Laetitia Mugerwa is an international researcher, and founder of Empowerment Initiative for Women and Youth Uganda. Despite her profession, Laetitia is a human rights advocate which she expresses in all her writing for years.

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