Mental health support lacking at workplace

TOO few Malaysian employers are investing in workplace initiatives to support mental health, as the increasing number of psychiatric patients in recent years threatens national productivity and their quality of life.
Head of Selayang Hospital’s Psychiatric Department Dr Toh Chin Lee said out of the more than 5,000 registered companies in Malaysia, including several multinational corporations (MNC), only a handful have taken a proactive approach in creating a workplace environment that helps promote positive mental health.
“Our jobs as specialists are not merely to heal mental illness, but to promote good mental health.
“This initiative needs to come from the employers first and foremost, we can only provide specialist services. If they (employers) don’t start (the process), we also can’t,” said Dr Toh.
He said he has so far only been invited by two MNC’s to conduct talks at the workplace on the importance of keeping one’s mind healthy and happy.
“For a small company, I understand it might be financially unviable, but the big companies can do it,” he told The Malaysian Insight.
Dr Toh said apart from making infrastructural changes, changing company culture is also effective in creating a workplace environment that is less stressful.
“For example, a company can have the policy where the employer accepts decisions made by workers from every level of management. Whoever has a good idea should be given a chance.
“We can also learn from American companies like Google, which provides all sorts of facilities, including a fitness centre.”
According to the National Health and Morbidity Study in 2015, some 4.2 million Malaysians aged 16 and above, or as many as 29.2% of the population, experienced mental problems.
The number was a sharp increase from the 11.2% recorded in 2006.
Proponents of greater national mental health awareness have long said workplace discrimination against those suffering from psychiatric issues have confounded the problem, as most patients fear losing their jobs once their condition is known and, therefore, delay getting treatment.
In a local study conducted two years ago, psychiatric patients told their doctors that they did not reveal their history of mental illness during job interviews as they feared being seen as “too risky” to be hired, said Lim Su Lin, a researcher at Penang Institute’s Kuala Lumpur branch.
Patients also feared being discriminated against if they were to request for time off from work to get help for their mental health problems.
“A patient told an employer that he or she was taking sick leave to get treatment for depression, and when the patient went back to work, the patient was informed that he or she was terminated,” said Lim.
“Malaysian employers need to be educated so that they don’t discriminate against workers facing mental health problems, but instead offer support and help them seek treatment.
“I also urge companies to place more priority in creating a suitable and comfortable workplace environment.
“Of late, many factors, such as the high cost of living, retrenchment and high employer expectations can lead to work stress, and employees are unable to find work-life balance.
“This affects their quality of life, and will also affect their work performance.”
Incentives for employers
However, private corporations said providing recreational activities and infrastructure and other initiatives to support mental health costs money that most don’t have to spare.
“All this depends on how much incentive can be offered by the government,” said Shamsuddin Bardan, executive director of the Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF).
“We should know that we (employers) in the private sector have limited resources.”
He said as many as 98% of MEF’s corporate members were small- and medium-sized companies with fewer than 250 workers, and did not have the financial capability to prioritise mental health programmes and support for their staff.
He disagreed with criticism that Malaysian employers discriminated against workers with mental health issues.
“I feel that the openness of workers when it comes to revealing their mental health problems is very low.
“Companies, if they know that their workers have problems, will try to do whatever they can to refer the worker to a specialist,” he said.
“And I think many more companies are working towards a work-life balance to reduce stress.” – November 4, 2017.
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