According to the World Health Organization, mental illness affects one in four persons globally. In Kenya, it is estimated that about one out of ten individuals suffers from mental illness. 25-40% of people seeking treatment from general medical facilities suffer from mental illnesses. Most of the individuals who are affected by mental illnesses are below the age of 35 years. A survey carried out by Dr. Edith Kwobah which was published in the BMC Psychiatry Journal indicated that there might be close to 5 million Kenyans affected by mental illnesses.
The effect of the subtle and often ignored mental illness is made evident by the rising number of suicides in the country. Conservative estimates indicate that the suicide rate in Kenya is about 7.9%. Mental illness related suicides are not limited to any tribe, religion, gender or social class. In October 2018, Steve Mumbo who had worked as business recovery manager at PwC, a leading audit firm in the country plunged to his death from the 17th floor of a building. It was speculated that his death may have been as a result of work related stress and depression. Mental illnesses can take various forms including bipolar disorders, anxiety, depression, schizophrenia and psychotic disorders. The underlying causes of mental illness are complex and multifaceted but work related pressures have been known to trigger or aggravate pre-existing mental health conditions.
In a speech that was delivered by the Director of Medical Services, Dr. Jackson Kioko, it was revealed that 10% of absenteeism from work is related to mental illness. It has also been found that an episode of depression can lead to a loss of up to 36 working days. Mental illness can also result in presentism which results in employees being present but mentally disengaged from their jobs. While statistics on the effect of mental illness on business in Kenya are scarce, other countries have found that mental illness has serious financial implications. For instance, statistics from the USA indicate that depression costs the economy $51 billion. Estimates from the UK indicate the mental illness costs UK businesses about €26 billion. 10% of these costs go towards the replacement of staff, 20% are attributed to absenteeism while 60% are attributed to reduced productivity at work. In the report on the costs of mental illnesses in the UK, it was reported up to 30% of these costs can be reduced by implementing work place well-being programs at the workplace.
Mental illness remains a taboo subject in Kenya with most people attributing it to spiritual causes. The country only spends 0.05% of its health budget on mental health making access to mental health facilities beyond the reach of many. There is a scarcity of psychiatrists and psychologists in the public and private health care sectors. Insurance companies are hesitant to cover costs associated with mental health related illnesses in the country. These factors contribute to making it difficult for organizations to take steps towards the improvement of mental well-being at the work place.
On average, a person will spend 90,000hours at work. Internal or external factors related to the work place can contribute to poor mental health which in turn affects employee’s productivity and career prospects. Work related matters such as an overload of work, long working hours, unreasonable deadlines and job insecurity contribute to poor mental health. A review of 228 research studies on employee wellbeing reported that there was a significant relationship between work place stress and health outcomes. Job insecurity was found to increase the odds of reporting poor health by about 50%. Having high demands at work increased the odds of being diagnosed with illness by a physician by 35%. When a local office technology company in Kenya carried out a survey, it was found that most of the employees only had functional relationships at work. Most of the employees stated that they felt isolated and unrecognized which made them anxious at times. This is just one of the many organizations in Kenya whose employees may be courting poor mental health at the work place. Most organizations lack data on the status of the mental health of their employees in spite of the significant contribution of mental health to productivity.
In as much as there has been an increase in awareness about mental health in the workplace, most organizations have been slow to implement mental health policies. Traditionally, most organizations implement mental health initiatives at work following a mental health related incident in their organizations. Reactive measures towards improving mental health at the workplace often have little effect as compared to proactive, data driven measures. Most organizations also lack an understanding of the business case for having initiatives that promote mental well-being at the work place. Measuring the return on investment (ROI) for workplace well-being programs often stands as a barrier to companies seeking to improve the mental well-being of their employees.
In spite of the existence of these barriers, a number of organizations are leading the way. Unilever is a good example of an organization that has a mental wellbeing program in place. The company provides training for its managers to enable them to recognize signs of mental illness. The Copy Cat Group Limited in Kenya has an employee assistance program in place which allows employees to call a counsellor who works for the organization and discuss matters relating to their mental well-being. Kenya Railways has trained peer educators and counsellors as part of its work force who help their colleagues navigate matters related to mental health.
There are still many organizations in Kenya and in other parts of the continent that are lagging behind in promoting mental well-being at the work place. This mirrors the low priority assigned to mental well-being in the continent. Statistics by World Health Organization indicate that about 46% of countries in Africa lack a mental health policy. Employers need to create a culture of mental health awareness and promote initiatives that help prevent mental illness. Leaders play a crucial role in encouraging employees to talk about mental health and providing support for those who suffer from mental illness. This would help in mitigating stigma associated with mental health hence improving outcomes associated with mental illness. Barclays Bank (currently trading as Absa Group) provides a good example on how to do this. The bank had a campaign dubbed “This is Me” in which employees suffering from mental illness talked about their struggles and triumphs with mental illness. There are other actions that can be implemented by organizations such as:
- Creation of a culture of proactive, preventative management of workplace well being
- Having leaders model work-life model
- Evaluation the effectiveness of workplace well-being interventions using tools such as Mind Workplace Wellbeing Index
There is no one size fits all but a company needs to start somewhere; and what better place than how you hire by really getting to know your potential employees. Talk to us today for your hiring needs and we shall be part of your employee’s journey.