Rwanda: Mental Health - Why One Local Bank Continues to Redesign Its Way of Work

When in October 2020, Lina Higiro, the chief executive officer of NCBA Bank Rwanda, was confronted by a challenging situation whereby an employee acted out of character, it sparked something that ultimately changed how things are done at the bank.

The institution started taking mental health issues in the workplace seriously. It found ways to establish a related employee assistance programme (EAP) for their employees because they noticed a need. The bank launched its new programme in March last year.

According to Higiro, the spark was "a situation which put me, as a leader, in a place of absolute lack of direction, lack of knowledge," and helplessness.

"This was a situation where somebody acted completely out of character and, ordinarily, with the labour law and our HR policy, this person should have gone through the disciplinary process which would have probably led to an exit or a very difficult end in terms of parting," she said.

At the time, the Bank had developed a culture where employees challenged one another and nothing is taken personally. And, because of that, the HR team which handled the specific case pushed back on the CEO's "automatic reaction to, this is a disciplinary case, this is how it should go," and so on.

"And that push back is what sparked the questions: what do we do? Do we have the capacity? We don't know how to identify when one of our colleagues is going through changes. All the signs are there but we don't know how to read these signs. There is definitely a gap."

Higiro and others admitted that the case they were dealing with would not be the first, or last.

She especially worried that there were probably other employees suffering from anxiety, depression, and other conditions.

"So, I had to seek help. I asked colleagues in the industry and elsewhere: who can I talk to? We need help. I need to know how to handle certain situations. And that's what happened."

That's how, in November 2020, Higiro was introduced to Dr Cindi Cassady, a clinical psychologist at a specialized mental health care facility in Kigali and Laure Iyaga, founder and CEO of the Sana Initiative which aims to break the stigma around mental health in Rwanda.

The senior management team in the Bank was taken through the basics of what mental health is.

"It was an education," Higiro recalls.

The banking sector has some very unique stressors that cause its employees to experience a great deal of stress, Cassady said. Their jobs, the clinical psychologist explained, "often require long hours, quick decisions, and are impacted not only by local economic events but also by rapidly changing global economic conditions."

Higiro said: "I thought this is it; we had such a stressful environment and perhaps we have to start working and thinking about work redesign that is healthy."

So, they started having discussions, including an awareness session as a leadership team, with Cassady and Iyaga.

"Simple basic reminders that your mind is like your body and that if you don't exercise your mind it starts to die off. If you don't take care and feed your mind with the right environment and with the right people, the right thoughts, et cetera, you will eventually breakdown. And it happens to all of us; anxiety, burn out, et cetera."

But Higiro did not stop there. She realized that this is not just an NCBA situation, and together with two other women leaders including BRD's CEO Pitchette Kampeta Sayinzoga, reached out to the Rwanda Bankers' Association.

"We decided that as three women, we would push certain initiatives through the Association to get more support and also more reach for the issues we think are a challenge and one was mental health. The second was sexual harassment and the third was how do we, as women, move from one level in our careers to the next? We tackled mental health as the first and introduced it to the Rwanda Bankers Association who gave us the audience."

All CEOs realized that there is a huge challenge with alcoholism, depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues "and this is not including those [people] who have been affected by post-genocide effects."

"Today, it is the young generation who are taking on new roles. Most of the people we are hiring in the Bank are in their 30s and today, the men are taking on new roles which they never used to take.

They are picking up kids, they are tutoring kids at home, wives are working, and it's a whole new dynamic. So, there is a lot changing and a lot of pressure in the work place."

A sense of purpose

Asked what it took to launch the employee assistance programme, Higiro noted that "it only took reaching out" and connecting to: the Rwanda Bankers Association, communities that do what doctors Cassady and other practitioners on the market are doing.

She added: "It also took finding out that most insurance companies do not cover counseling services, and that was a shock."

And that's how also, in their employee assistance programme, the decision to start paying for staff started.

"We said we will pay for any counseling services for our staff."

Consultations are at about Rwf20, 000 per hour and it is offered to all employees.

The probability of miss-use is very low and, in the broader scheme of business, "it's worth the cost." Last year, they "managed to get our health insurance to cover this benefit."

Everything now looks up but Dr Cassady and her team had to first "do a lot of awareness sessions with all Bank staff, at all levels."

Sessions included stress audits which helped identify areas where, as a Bank, they had to work on.

"It has taken time. It is not fully established in the sense that our mental health programme is very young and still evolving and there is a lot that we still need to do. But what all this made me realize is that as a company, as much as we take pride that we are a good employer, there are many things that we could be doing that are hurting employees," Higiro said.

"Just because of the way the work is organized, some people are working night shifts. Sometimes we assume that it's your job and you should do a night shift. But maybe there might be something that you can't handle. There are many things that we have to look at as we evolve and become a better institution that takes care of the full wellness, whether it's physical, or mental. It is a process."

Her institution is working on a work design for health framework where they have flexi hours, also known as flextime or a flexible work schedule; have days for no meetings; and have free Fridays.

They are trying their level best to give autonomy to "our colleagues and employees" so that they can grow in their roles.

"What we are also trying to do, in developing a work design for health framework, is we look at providing employees opportunities to identify problems in the work place. I am very passionate about developing communities so we foster a sense of belonging and there is mutual understanding that we have a sense of purpose and community beyond the work that we do," Higiro said.

They established a men's community, a women's community, a savings group, and a book club, among others.

And, apparently, they are reaping fruits of their EAP after taking active care of teams beyond physical health.

"All this has brought to our attention, and especially me, as the business leader, other leaders in the bank who we didn't even recognize existed. We are seeing a lot of talent, we are seeing excitement, and we are seeing initiatives that are just helping to create a sense of purpose beyond the work place."

Despite the progress made since October 2020, Higiro admits they still have a lot to do since mental wellness includes setting up policies, "reframing how we work," continually raising the level of awareness, and more.

Dr Cassady said: "I think it's an excellent idea for companies or corporations who have medical insurance for their employees to also consider a more holistic approach to employee healthcare.

"Given the tremendous changes and uncertainties that have affected the medical and education sectors during the past two years, EAPs could provide medical staff and educators with much needed mental health support if their institutions were willing to implement it."

jkaruhanga@newtimesrwanda.com

Follow https://twitter.com/KarhangaJames

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