Work environments are greatly affected by the mental health of the people working in them and thus employers cannot ignore the mental health of their employees
“The smoothness of the workflow of a business is dependent on the resilience of the weakest link,” President of The Malta Chamber Ms. Marisa Xuereb said during a conference titled Mental Wellbeing – a Priority for Your Business during World Mental Health Day. She stressed that work is such an important part of life, that it makes more sense to talk about work-life harmony rather than a balancing act between the two. President Xuereb said that, “work environments are greatly affected by the mental health of the people working in them and thus employers cannot ignore the mental health of their employees. It is their concern because it impacts not just the employee who needs help but everyone else in the organisation, including other employees, customers and even suppliers.”
This position was also echoed by Ms. Catherine Calleja, Chair of the Health and Wellness Committee and Director of Atlas Insurance, who supported this event. She acknowledged that employers are increasingly doing more to create positive flexible workplaces and hybrid options but that individuals still fall prey to serious levels of stress, anxiety, depression and worse and greatly affect the whole team’s wellbeing and sense of purpose. She also touched upon the difficulties faced by foreign workers, and by men who find it much harder to ask for help.
During this event Dr Natasha Azzopardi Muscat, Director of the Division of Country Health Policies and Systems with WHO and Dr Denis Vella Baldacchino, Commissioner for Mental Health, portrayed a sobering reality; around the world, 15% of working age adults suffer from a mental health disorder at any given time, at a cost of $2.5 trillion in lost economic activity and in costs directly associated to care. Locally, 65% of involuntary admissions to Mount Carmel Hospital are people who are less than 45 years old, with 30% of them being under thirty. Furthermore, a 3% rise was seen in people who professed to have depressive symptoms between 2015 and 2020.
These worrying statistics were also mentioned by Frank Zammit, station manager of Vibe Fm and mental health advocate who, in a pre-recorded interview, urged people in authority to really take note of the mental health crisis that seems to be underway, and to remove the stigma attached to mental health by acknowledging that going through a mental health struggle is normal and that wellbeing at the workplace should be prioritized consistently, and not through knee-jerk reactions.
During a panel discussion in this conference, Dr Stephanie Xuereb, CEO of Mental Health Services, reminded the audience that the statistics in hand are only the tip of the iceberg, and represent only those people who sought assistance through public health structures. She also confirmed that many workers who seeks help are foreigners, partly due to the fact that they find themselves in Malta without the safety net made up of family and friends, but also acknowledged that environment problems and the war in Ukraine are currently strong triggers for millennials and younger, and that the rise in drug use is also a major contributing factor. Other triggers which were mentioned by Mireille Pellegrini Petit, Clinical and Coaching Psychologist specialized in wellbeing at work, were bullying at work, autocratic leadership, as well as discrimination.
When asked whether there is a legal requirement for an employee to disclose any mental health disorders to their employer, Dr Marthese Portelli, CEO of The Malta Chamber, clarified that one should look at the legal framework holistically. While Data Protection Laws and the Mental Health Act provide for the right of confidentiality of the employee, the Health and Safety Act then places the responsibility of the health and safety of all the employees at workplace on the employer. Hence, the question of whether the employer should know or not is a pertinent one, as knowledge of an employee’s mental condition means that the employer is then duty bound to ensure the safety of the employee in question, their colleagues, as well as the persons that they are obliged to serve.
This argument was sustained by Inspector Omar Zammit, who mentioned a case where an employee was fired for not performing at her place of work by an employer who was not aware that she was suffering from depression. The termination resulted in a failed attempt at suicide in which he had to intervene, with the person now receiving the care that they needed. He also added that the Police Force is also recognising the importance of mental health within its structure, and it is holding training sessions to help officers in recognising mental health issues amongst their colleagues.
Dr Portelli stressed that knowledge of an employee’s mental health condition was not a matter of knowing just for the sake of wanting to know, or to use said knowledge as a gatekeeping exercise during the recruitment process. It is a matter of care and protection and a strive to eradicate the element of shame and to instil a culture of openness in an environment where no form of harassment will be tolerated.