World Mental Health Day: Unpacking mental health in the workplace

Niha Dagia
5 min readOct 10, 2017

As the sun rises on the morning of October 10, celebrated as World Mental Health Day, kindling an international debate on this year’s theme “mental health in the workplace”, in Pakistan the society grows to discover the mental health, shedding decades-old stigma.

But the conversation here spheres between indifference to confrontation to a feeble acceptance despite a study, “The burden of mental disorders in the Eastern Mediterranean Region, 1990–2013” suggesting that mental disorders account for more than four per cent of the total disease burden in the country.

With over 300 million people suffering from anxiety and depression related disorders globally — the theme for 2017 draws attention to mental health in the workplace. A significant part of an employed individual’s day is spent at work — impacting not just the financial stature but physical and psychological health.

As Maslow’s hierarchy of needs states motivation is an essential need for proficiency. For an employer, an overworked-demotivated mind will be a reason for less productivity. Recognising employees mental-wellbeing will not only help the individual but also increase the company’s output. A happy staffer is more likely to be engaged, motivated and loyal, according to a study.

Life and Style writer, Rida Lodhi spoke to The Express Tribune on how massively her work was affected by her mental state at the said moment. “If I am depressed or feeling low, it affects my work. I might not be mentally present here, and won’t be able to work to the best of my ability.”

So how do we ensure the workplace promotes peace not stress? A difficult task considering that ambitions are at play — hard work, time with a spice of cut-throat politics to move up the ladder often lay the basis of one’s career.

“So, I personally believe that the monotony created because of a particular routine gets the best of you,” reflects N*, a former research associate. “We get so caught up with work, people around us and the daily conundrums that we forget to focus on the most crucial part of ourselves — the mind.”

A recent guide from the World Economic Forum suggests a three-pronged approach:

  • Protect by reducing work-related risk factors
  • Promote developing the positive aspects of work and strengths of employees
  • Address problems regardless of cause

Warda Sheikh, a news sub-editor, stressed the importance of mental health saying that “more often than not, in a work place, an individual is attuned to appearing as hardworking, determined, and absolutely unbreakable. These notions can be difficult to uphold and, sometimes, even more difficult to implement.”

“To address the issue of mental health at work is important so that the entire team may be able to battle them together. In this modern world where the competition is throat-cutting and everyone needs to perform their best, we often forget that the key to a successful work-life balance knows how to mentally fit into both roles. I believe there should be mental health counselors at every work place.”

But the fight here is not just to promote a healthy environment but to overcome the stigma that attributes shame to the victims instead of empowering them to seek help.

“The days I push myself at eight in the morning to wake up and rush to work, when I know I need to concentrate on myself, are the days I perform the worst; I am restless and exhausted, and particularly cranky,” said Warda.

The level of seriousness denoted to mental health can be reflected by there being no healthcare insurance for a medical expense that is heavy on the pocket. Basic medical coverage includes tests, procedures [according to the insurance plan] yet mental health is not part of it.

It is then not surprising that people take ‘sick days’ or choose to struggle, than asking for days off to take care of their mental well-being.

A journalist, asking to remain anonymous, presents the reality of the stigma surrounding mental health in the workplace, having taken many days off due to stress and anxiety. “I would not have the courage or motivation to pull myself over for the day,” said F*. “Instead of telling my boss that I am actually feeling down and that I am on anti-depressants, I would make an excuse that I have to take my mother to the hospital or something like that.”

Warda, a graudate in Social Sciences & Liberal Arts from Institute of Business Administration [IBA], added that “each company or organisation should have monthly exercises, seminars, and workshops to raise awareness and also to remove the stigma of mental health from work places. These are the people you spend most of your time with, if you can’t be comfortable at work, how will you attain mental wellbeing?”

“When I visit a therapist or indulge in mindful exercises, I wake up with the energy required to work successfully,” she adds.

“I believe the state of your mental well being is of utmost importance as everything from work to more everyday tasks can only be achieved if you’ve reached a mental state of equilibrium,” said Jam Najaf Ali, an analyst. “That equilibrium differs from person to person and we all tackle it in our own ways, but if one feels that he or she is unable to solve something internally, they should certainly prioritise external help such as therapy.”

“I think talking about mental health and going to a therapist would aide a lot in understanding myself and dealing with things in a better way without getting anxious,” adds N*.

Where people are open to discussing mental health, the reluctance to seek help when needed stems from the stigma of mental health as something intense and personal.

“It’s a dark part of me,” says F*. “Why should I share it with anyone?”

The perception of psychological wellbeing is a complicated one, as Erum Shaikh, a journalist by profession explains. Sometimes things are so intricately intertwined that it is hard to pull at one string without tugging at them all, making it all the more difficult to describe to your peers why you need to address mental peace. “Because there are multiple layers to it — it becomes difficult to explain it to another person.”

“There isn’t a fear of judgement as such,” Erum stresses. “It’s more a fear of lack of understanding — lack of empathy.”

As important as it is to create awareness, it is equally important to do it kindly — encouraging people to accept and address it. While the struggle to mainstream mental health care is a difficult one, empathy and compassion have the power to open doors to peace.

Originally published at https://tribune.com.pk on October 10, 2017.

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Niha Dagia
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Multimedia Journalist covering politics, health and social issues for Foreign Policy, TRT, The Diplomat. Prior: Senior Editor @ The Express Tribune, Geo News