Advocating An Environment For Change: Mental Health At Work

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GVZH Advocates

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GVZH Advocates is a modern, sophisticated legal practice composed of top-tier professionals and rooted in decades of experience in the Maltese legal landscape. Built on the values of acumen, integrity and clarity, the firm is dedicated to providing the highest levels of customer satisfaction, making sure that legal solutions are soundly structured, rigorously tested, and meticulously implemented.
The right to work is a universal human right and is enshrined as one of the fundamental principles of our Constitution, whereby all citizens are not only free to engage...
Malta Employment and HR
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The right to work is a universal human right and is enshrined as one of the fundamental principles of our Constitution, whereby all citizens are not only free to engage in work but also to freely pursue their desired employment or occupation. The law promotes even conditions, whilst also advocating for the professional or vocational training and advancement of all workers.

The typical working day in 2024 is very different to what it would have been in the 1960s or 1970s. This is traceable to the increased access to and use of technology which has had an exponential effect on the ‘traditional' idea of what a mainstream workplace would consist of. With respect to this, the utilization of technology has changed work deliverables and deadlines, to say the least.

Moreover, the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic gave us all a very different outlook towards life in general, and most especially towards work, how and where it is performed and ultimately how a deadline is handled, concluded and submitted. For most employees, the pandemic gave rise to a new reality of what is commonly now known as ‘remote working'1.

Although employees have adapted to teleworking arrangements in terms of accessibility, flexible working times, continuous connectivity, social isolation and telework expenses, among others; remote work has also ignited the discussion of mental health at the workplace. Most of us may recall how during the months of March to June 2020, when our home became the primary workspace, the fine line between working time and private time often became a blur.

Due to the fact that the switch from normality to pandemic life was so sudden, it was difficult for many employees to establish boundaries and manage personal disruptions; especially when their dining room table became also the office, children attending online schooling were constantly present at home and there seemed to be an untold element of urgency for every task to be done.

Because of the constant struggle to balance one's life between work and home, workplaces witnessed the necessity to safeguard the mental health and wellbeing of their employees' and this has remained a top priority for employers in today's work discussion.

Defining Mental Health

As stated by the World Health Organisation (WHO):

“Mental health is a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community”.

Essentially, mental health is one of the vital components of our overall wellbeing and health, which contributes to our individual and collective abilities to navigate through decision-making, build relationships with those around us, and increase performance and productivity in every task assigned to us. The risks that work might impose on an employee's mental health are known as psychosocial risks and they can be linked to several characteristics which are very prominent in the workplace environment. Examples would be having an excessive workload, job insecurity, understaffing, and inflexible hours amongst others. From a statistical point of view, it is interesting to note that in the UK, 1 in 6.8 people experience mental health problems in the workplace (14.7%) and women in full-time employment are nearly twice as likely to have a mental health problem, in comparison to full-time employed men (19.8% vs 10.9%).2

In Malta, from a survey conducted by Misco in 2021, 42% of respondents believed that having trouble to concentrate is one of the effects of poor mental wellness on an employee's performance at work. The research study shows that 63% of respondents have experienced mental health issues such as stress and anxiety related to work in 2021, as opposed to 67% in 2020.3 This is likely a resulting effect from the pandemic.

During this same survey, respondents were also asked what causes them to feel stressed, and the reasons delineated were the following:

  • heavy workload;
  • lack of support;
  • tight deadlines;
  • job insecurity.

As one can evidently note, none of the above factors are linked to the pandemic, but one can say that the notion of remote working has led to a sense of isolation which amplified one's feelings towards their work. During remote working, can the burden of workload feel heavier when it is not shared? Is it easier to assign tasks to remote workers making them overloaded with more work than that which they can manage? Does one feel like they are not supported when working remotely due to ineffective communication?

All these are pertinent questions that one can legitimately pose when taking into consideration mental health at the workplace. It is also important to note that poor mental wellness affects employees' output and their overall work productivity which often results in greater levels of distress, tension, and anger in both the employer and the employee. Ultimately, this may lead to misunderstandings through miscommunication between the employer and the employees and the end result is not a satisfactory one.

The Employers' Role

Employers may be seen to be the most important point of call with regards to their employees' mental health, as it is their duty and it is also conducive to them to cultivate a positive working environment, built upon mutual support and psychological safety. Mental health is as imperative as physical health, and an employer should ensure that an encouraging outlook towards taking care of one's mental health is actively present and continuously promoted throughout the workplace.

In this discussion, being a good employer and a good leader includes being committed to mental health at work. Therefore, it is imperative that an employer implements the necessary tools to understand where the line needs to be drawn between certain behaviours, often repetitive, of an employee which are attributable to a concerning sign of poor mental health, and that it is not simply a case of the employee ‘slacking' from the duties which are expected of them at the place of work.

The tools and initiatives that an employer may implement can range from technical responsibilities, such as being trained in mental health first aid, regulatory upkeeping and monitoring, through for instance having the necessary internal company policies and procedures in place, which need to be updated in terms of law from time to time, and several personal characteristics of respect and trust, such as permitting changes to employee working patterns (ex. starting work later or finishing earlier), and allowing flexibility for remote working.

Furthermore, simple physical health related gestures ought to be encouraged such as a periodical healthy breakfast and providing access to a gym membership, would not only show how the employer embraces a healthy lifestyle but will also make the employees feel appreciated.

Understanding and encouraging healthy practices are solely one broad aspect of creating a harmonious working environment. However, it is also important to have and provide access to professionals who would be able to guide an employee on how to deal with their difficulties better, with methods that suit them best, and how to manage the stress that their workload imposes upon them. Each and every employer would need to understand and be reminded that they play a vital role in the mental wellbeing of their employees.

When implementing such tools, employers should take note of the following factors to ascertain that their application is indeed effective and beneficial to safeguard the mental health of employees:

  • Ensuring fairness and consistency when applying tools;
  • Maintaining strict confidentiality;
  • Maintaining a non-judgemental attitude;
  • Dealing with an employee's needs and issues on a case-by-case basis;
  • Discuss and provide employees with two-way feedback on their progress and needs;
  • Taking disciplinary action against any harmful and discriminatory behaviour;

Implementing tools and practices not only achieves the goal of safeguarding mental health and wellbeing at the workplace, but it also helps to eradicate the stigma surrounding mental health.

Conclusion

Mental health at work can only be improved if workplaces allow and cater for an environment for change. Safeguarding mental health at the workplace is not a matter of all talk and no action but the effects of real change can only be brought about by taking the matter seriously. Implementing the relevant policy structures in order to positively manage mental health will definitely be for the benefit of everyone.

Additionally, workplaces need to find a happy medium between work-life-harmony and work-life-balance.

Work-life-harmony is not just a fad that everyone seems to be professing, but it can be a vital tool for employers to embrace the notion of mental wellness at the workplace as ultimately having such a balance is key for ensuring and increasing work satisfaction.

Encouraging a work-life-balance in terms of working time is also essential. In today's world, clients expect to be in receipt of a service almost instantly and it is fundamentally up to the employers to emphasise a balance in respect of working times.

Footnotes

1. For the avoidance of doubt, telework is a form of organising or performing work, using information technology, such as smartphones, tablets, laptops, and desktop computers, where the work, which could also be performed at the employer's premises, is carried out away from those premises, on a regular basis. For the sake of clarity, telework is normally considered as a subcategory of the broader concept of remote work, as the latter does not necessarily include the use of information and communications technology or landline telephones to carry out the work remotely.

2. https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/explore-mental-health/statistics/mental-health-work-statistics#:~:text=1%20in%206.8%20people%20experience,in%20the%20workplace%20(14.7%25).&text=Women%20in%20full%2Dtime%20employment,(19.8%25%20vs%2010.9%25);

3. Misco Malta Study survey 2021;

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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