Liberia: The Impact of Workplace Design on Employees’ Mental Health

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.... A toxic workplace that fosters bullying, harassment, intimidation, or abuse. Lack of training, coaching, or leadership for the role employees is expected to fulfill. Incomplete or unclear communication from the organization about responsibilities, goals, or decision-making.

By Jonah Soe Kotee, President — the Association of Liberia Human Resource Professionals 

The successive industrial revolutions have had a gloomy impact on the work environment. The first  Industrial Revolution reformed the way individuals planned and factory-made things, and it transformed the social order of work. The Second Industrial Revolution similarly was a chapter of rapid systematic innovation, calibration, mass manufacture, and mechanization from the twilight 19th century into the early 20th century. 

The third Industrial Revolution, known as the Digital Revolution also give rise to a slowdown of industrial development and technological encroachment equaled to the aforementioned eras, and the fourth Industrial Revolution- Industry 4.0,  intellectualized rapid modification to expertise, businesses, and communal configurations and procedures in the 21st century due to amassed interconnectivity and canny automation

These revolutions have had their power on the design and redesign of work which has transformed in ways that would have been tough to visualize in previous generations. New infrastructure technologies and mounting access to the internet empowered employees to work outside the workstation at pretty much any time of the daytime or night-time; snowballing competition among organizations and industries from around the world has commanded the accumulative burden for cost efficiencies and higher efficiency.

The changing work environments unquestionably brought prospects for professional development, expanding networks, and modernization. The magnitude and leap of the change, together with a work environment did not take into consideration people’s mental well-being, and led to physical and mental health complications, damaging use of alcohol or other substances, absenteeism, stress, harassment, poor organization structure, and loss of efficiency. 

Certainly, the loss of productivity caused by depression and anxiety, two of the most common mental disorders, is predictable to cost the global economy US$ 1 trillion each year according to the WHO.  The changing work environment has incited employees to examine some tangible questions: How many more jobs are going to be lost?  How much more salary harmonization is going to take place for civil servants in Liberia? 

When are employees going to get back to usual; and even if they return to normal; what will be the new normal? For many employees, these questions are even more unrelenting: How are employees going to make ends meet? How are they going to feed their family? How are they to pay their rent? How are they going to retire?

The answers to some of these critical questions point to some of the common mental disorders in our workplaces. According to the WHO, the number of people suffering from depression and/or anxiety between 1990 and 2013 increased by approximately 50%, from 416 million to 615 million.

 Nearly 10% of the world’s population is affected, and mental disorders account for 30% of the worldwide non-fatal illness burden. WHO estimates that, during emergencies, as many as 1 in 5 people are affected by anxiety and depression Nevertheless, the current outlay in mental health support is far lower than what is desired. According to WHO’s “Mental Health Atlas 2014” survey, governments devote on average 3% of their health budgets to mental health, ranging from less than 1% in low-income countries to 5% in high-income countries.

As the world, including Liberia, continues to grapple with economic crisis and issues of employment, it is critical for the Association of Liberia Human Resource professionals to shed light on the mental health risks that persist in our various workplaces.  Some common mental health determinants in the workplace include long unbending working hours, short staffing due to cutbacks on budgets, unfilled vacancies, or an ever-increasing workload. Working remotely with no clear separation between work and personal time.

 A toxic workplace that fosters bullying, harassment, intimidation, or abuse. Lack of training, coaching, or leadership for the role employees is expected to fulfill. Incomplete or unclear communication from the organization about responsibilities, goals, or decision-making. Lack of support, scarcity of equipment or other job resources, hazardous working practices, interruption in salary payment, arbitrary harmonization of employees’ salary, lack of psychological safety at work, lack of work-life balance, lack of employment, driving long distances to and fro work, etc are some of the determinants increasing employees mental tension at work 

So what can we do? 

Employers need to create free space to talk openly about mental health in the workplace; employers need to structure policies that will reduce humiliation and discrimination against those who are less able to survive; the millennials who do not have any vision of the future for themselves, older workers who are frightened that they might never again find a job, women, who have to swallow the burden of the economic decline, front line workers who feel they have not been supported enough.

At the government level, there must continue to be an investment in mental health issues and social protection in the workplace- both the private and public sectors. The Civil Service Agency must work with relevant stakeholders to design mental health programs and policies that support and protect civil servants. 

The Ministry of labor and Liberia Chamber of Commerce must work with the private sector employers and draft regulations that mandate and encourage private sector employers to allocate resources for mental health programs for employees-all employers’ handbooks must contain mental health and social protection policies that will also provide extra supportive measures to ensure the mental health of vulnerable disadvantaged groups and protected characteristics. 

At the international level, the Association of Liberia Human Resource  Professionals (ALHRP) pleads for more support to tackle mental health issues at work- it should not only be on Word Mental Day.  We plead for regular check-in and support to low- and lower-middle-income countries in which a large percentage of the citizens have no protection at all.

 We plead for a scale-up of mental health services which will contribute to the accomplishment of 1 of the marks of the Sustainable Development Goals, validated at the United Nations General Assembly in 2015: “by 2030, to shrink by one-third untimely mortality from no communicable diseases through preclusion and treatment and advancement of mental health and well-being."

Just as the work influences the mental health of employees, employees’ mental health can also upset their work, impacting job performance and productivity. Recent estimates from the WHO put forward that mental health issues cost the global economy $1 trillion per annum in lost productivity, absenteeism, and staff turnover. 

ALHRP as people management advocates, our workplace environment remains outside our control. The culture at work is established by those closer to power, in the realm of power or the hierarchy and employees often feel powerless or psychologically unsafe to speak out without anxiety of sentence or risking their jobs.

Whether employees’ mental health issues are caused by their workplace or trunk from elsewhere and are heartrending their performance, we encourage employees to increase their malleability, and better endeavor to accomplish their full potential at work and even beyond. We encourage employers to create a more productive work environment that nurtures mental health in the workplace.

About the author: Jonah Soe Kotee, BA, MSc-SHRM, LLM in Employment Law, GTML is the  President - of the Association of Liberia Human Resource Professionals (alhrp.org)  CEO - Gurus Human Resource Consulting Group (https://gurushrconsultancy.com/) and Vice president – Internet Society Liberia Chapter (https://internetsociety.org.lr/)

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this commentary are solely of the author and do not necessarily represent that of the Daily Observer newspaper.