Facing Mental Health Challenges in the Workplace

By Dr. Rahida Aini

June 2024 FEATURE
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DEPRESSION AMONG MALAYSIANS has been on the rise, with figures escalating from 1.8% in 2011 to 2.3% in 2020. Mental health expert and director of the International College of Clinical Hypnotherapy Practitioners Asia Regional, Synthia Surin, says that they have found that Penang has the highest number of calls related to suicide compared to other states, and that nearly half a million Malaysian adults aged 16 and above have experienced depression.

In spite of those numbers, the National Occupational Accident and Disease’s 2022 statistics reported only one psycho-social case compared to over 5,000 cases of hearing loss (DOSM). Now, this may seem like an odd comparison, but the idea here is that the low number of psycho-social cases does not indicate the absence of mental illness, but a lack of awareness and acceptance of mental health issues and potential solutions.

The pervasive fear of being stigmatised acts as a significant barrier for individuals seeking mental health assistance. They are apprehensive about being labeled “mentally ill” and anticipate negative repercussions on both their personal and professional lives.

However, mental health issues like depression, when untreated, can lead to suicidal thoughts and possibly suicide.

Section 309 of the Malaysian Penal Code once mandated that individuals attempting suicide could potentially face imprisonment for up to one year, a fine or both, if convicted. Malaysia’s commendable move to abolish Section 309 signals a new shift, and attempting suicide is no longer a criminal act. In fact, in countries where laws criminalising suicide attempts have been amended or abolished, there has been a noticeable decline in suicide rates.

Today, the emphasis on preventing suicide attempts has shifted towards supporting individuals in distress and encouraging them to openly seek assistance. However, many still fear that they may be involuntarily detained and restrained, and worry that they would not receive empathetic, caring and compassionate support.

Lack of Mental Health Service Providers

According to information from Malaysian Medics International 2022, Malaysia has 479 registered psychiatrists. The recommended ratio is one psychiatrist per 10,000 people— that would be 3,000 psychiatrists for the entire population. The highest ratio of psychiatrists is found in urban areas like KL and Putrajaya, while rural states Kedah and Sabah have the lowest number of psychiatrists. This uneven distribution of doctors, plus a shortage of mental health professionals in the country, makes it difficult for rural folks to access mental health care services—not to mention poor socioeconomic conditions and stigma that may lead them to consider alternative practices that may be detrimental to their mental health.

In most workplaces, employers often acknowledge their responsibility for the well-being of their employees. But in spite of their articulated concern, many employees are hesitant to discuss personal work-related issues with their managers. Workplace stress, fuelled by excessive workload, unappealing tasks and interpersonal and intrapersonal conflicts, can prompt employees to resign, especially in competitive work environments. They worry that admitting mental health struggles could be perceived as a sign of weakness, and could affect their professional standing. The reluctance to open up may be rooted in concerns about judgment, fear of repercussions or a perceived lack of confidentiality.

Some employees are unaware of mental health disorder symptoms, attributing them to stress or fatigue. In such cases, some turn to traditional healers, who may perceive their mental symptoms to be linked to supernatural phenomena, e.g., being possessed by a demon.

Advancing Mental Health Awareness

What are some supportive measures to address mental health issues at the workplace?

As the company may not know who may be experiencing mental health difficulties, the management should organise workshops and training sessions to promote mental health awareness, encourage help-seeking behaviour and diminish professional stigma. As intermediaries, they may feel unprepared to support employee well-being. Mental Health First Aid training is one effective measure for addressing this challenge.

Then, managers can undergo leadership training to identify mental health indicators and adopt a well-being-centric approach. This training should encompass implementing check-ins and advocating for a nurturing network which can help alleviate emotional burdens, reduce non-financial costs and enhance organisational success by minimising productivity loss in the long run.

Work culture that prioritises work-life balance, providing flexible schedules, remote work options, and weekly wellness activities like Yoga, Zumba and Pilates does help. Recognising and rewarding employee contributions, fostering inclusivity and supporting professional growth while emphasising worklife balance enhances an employee’s job satisfaction and well-being.

It is also advisable to collaborate with mental health professionals such as PsyCorp to implement an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) corporate training initiative. This programme covers topics from stress management, conflict resolution, substance abuse counselling and therapy for anxiety and depression.

As it is, Malaysia has developed a blueprint titled the National Strategic Plan for Mental Health 2020-2025 to serve as a valuable guide for all stakeholders engaged in mental health care and services. However, companies may not be ready and willing to integrate this into their workplaces.

While Malaysia has taken significant strides in tackling mental health issues through the establishment of institutions for mentally ill individuals since the 1950s, the formulation of a mental health policy in 1998, and the promulgation of the Mental Health Act in 2001, there is still much left to do. The growing crisis in mental health is alarming and demands our attention. Despite commendable initiatives, the escalating trend underscores the pressing need for collective action.

Dr. Rahida Aini

works as a Publication Officer at Penang Institute. She enjoys writing and strolling along Straits Quay, appreciating the beauty of Mother Earth.