Nigeria: Safe Spaces in the Workplace - Reducing Workplace Stress to Improve Mental Health

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Musa is a 32-year-old junior associate who works in a law firm. He used to love the Law profession, but unfavourable work conditions robbed him of that passion causing him to lose all interest in his work and the profession altogether. "My office is a toxic place," he said. "It is very difficult for me to cope with my boss. Sometimes, during meetings, I have panic attacks when he yells at me. I just wish he could speak to me with a bit more respect even if it is just for my humanity. I wish he would listen to me and give me constructive feedback that I can learn from rather than condemn my work. The thought of work now scares me."

Musa stopped contributing to any activities in his office because he didn't feel like his opinion mattered. During meetings, he would cower in silence for fear of attracting a verbal bashing. Work for him became a vicious cycle of missed deadlines and incessant abuse. Unfortunately, Musa's story depicts the reality of many workplaces globally where employees face the crushing mental strain resulting from being underpaid, overworked, and mistreated.

Based on our postulations on how much time people spend at work daily, we believe that the average Nigerian spends almost 60% of their waking hours at work, this means that many people will spend more time at work on average than they spend anywhere else. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the attendant blur between the lines of work and home life, the time spent at work might have even increased. This means that work conditions tend to have the biggest health and mental impact on the average Nigerian.

When pressure becomes excessive or otherwise unmanageable it leads to stress. Work-related stress is the response people may have when presented with undue work demands and pressures they are not equipped to deal with. It can cause an employee to develop major health issues and ultimately affect the performance of the business.

Many employees in Musa's shoes are either unaware of the severity of workplace stress on their health or they are forced to endure it due to economic conditions. Untreated long term (chronic) stress has been reported to be associated with anxiety, insomnia, muscle pain, high blood pressure, weakened immune system, heart disease, depression and obesity. These could have a direct negative impact on employee and organisational performance.

Improving mental health in the workplace

Employers

Workplace stress is a serious problem. It is the collective responsibility of labour regulatory bodies, employers, and employees to prevent it. The best way to find out if employees have problems at work, is to ensure that there are open communication channels across all sections of the organisation. For a healthy work environment, employers should set up systems that ensure there is regular feedback from employees about their work conditions, and whether they feel their health and wellbeing is being adversely affected by their work. To ensure that employees feel they have a sense of ownership over any process created, the co-creation of ideas would ensure there is collective thinking around solutions. Employers must create safe spaces for employees to regularly discuss the challenges they face in their work and areas where they feel pressured.

In addition, employers can:

Point employees to online self-assessment tools and encourage their use. Some online tools exist to help identify increasing workplace stress such as Work-life balance quizzes and mental health meters.

Provide access to a qualified mental health professional, who will then provide directed feedback and clinical referral when appropriate.

Provide employees with the tools to identify the signs and symptoms of poor mental health and opportunities for treatment.

Train managers to recognise the signs and symptoms of stress and depression in team members and encourage them to seek help from qualified mental health professionals.

Give employees opportunities to participate in decisions about issues that affect job stress.

Regulators (The government)

Nigeria has a National Policy for Mental Health Services Delivery that requires employers to take care of the mental health of their workers. It recommends that employers:

Liaise with employees at all levels to safeguard the mental health of their workforce

Encourage employers to develop health policies for the workplace which include mental, neurological and substance abuse (MNS) promotion, prevention, access to treatment and rehabilitation which follow good practice for people with mental illness.

Organise training seminars for employers, personnel, and health care staff, particularly on how they can avoid work-related stress and burn-out.

Encourage psychiatrists to work with employers to safeguard jobs of those who become ill and to develop jobs for people who are being rehabilitated.

This legislation obliges employers to take care of the health and safety of their workers, with particular emphasis on mental health. However, major provisions of the policy, including establishing a body focused on mental health at the Federal Ministry of Health, are yet to be implemented.

The Ministries of Health and Labour and Productivity need to ensure that required action is taken so that Nigeria develops and implements both a policy and legal framework to address mental health issues in the workplace.

Employees

It is important for employees to know and recognise the symptoms of work-related stress, especially those peculiar to them as they may differ from person to person. Employees should not hesitate to seek medical attention if they experience these symptoms. They must know their stress threshold and if necessary, take themselves out of a trigger situation as soon as possible. Finally, they must also recognise when it's time to let go of a job, especially if it is become damaging to their health.

To an extent, employees have a duty to take care for their own health and that of the people who might be affected by their acts or omissions in the workplace.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated mental health challenges, even for people who were on solid footing before. It has exposed a critical need for high quality, comprehensive mental health care that is not likely to disappear soon. Given as most of one's waking hours are spent at work, it is imperative to work together to ensure that the workplace is a safe and healthy environment.

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