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Promoting workers’ mental health in Africa

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Promoting workers’ mental health in Africa

Workers’ mental health in Africa remains a topic that is often misunderstood and stigmatized. Employees are reluctant to discuss psychological reasons when requesting leave, fearing it might harm their careers. However, mental health directly affects productivity and can lead to significant financial losses for companies.

WHO : Mental Health in the Workplace in Africa

Health is not just the absence of disease or disability. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines health as a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being. Psychological balance is increasingly recognized for its impact on professional productivity.

According to Dr. Ambroise Ané, an expert at the WHO country office, 300 million people were suffering from depression before 2019. The situation worsened with the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic impacts. Globally, depression and anxiety result in the loss of 12 billion workdays each year, representing an economic loss of 1 trillion USD annually.

Strong stigma in Africa

Africa grapples with the highest level of stigma against individuals with mental health issues globally. In 2022, the continent reported 11 suicide cases per 100,000 inhabitants, surpassing the global average of nine cases for the same population size. This pervasive stigma is largely attributed to the scarcity of specialized healthcare professionals. On average, Africa has only one psychiatrist for every 500,000 inhabitants, a rate 100 times lower than international standards.

Lack of investment in prevention

Florence Baingana, regional advisor for mental health and substance abuse at WHO, advocates for significantly increased funding for mental health prevention programs. However, financial resources are limited.

Donors prioritize combating infectious and deadly diseases such as malaria, AIDS, measles, and recently, COVID-19. Apart from some substance abuse programs, few international partners allocate funds specifically for psychiatric disorders.

The company environment affect productivity

The professional world poses constant challenges, tight deadlines, and high expectations, often taking a toll on employees’ mental health. Stress, anxiety, and depression have become commonplace, yet the stigma surrounding mental health complicates recognition in the workplace.

Working conditions in Africa often lack favorability across physical, environmental, organizational, social, and psychological aspects. Heavy workloads, negative behaviors, job insecurity, bullying, and violence are frequently cited concerns. Additionally, ineffective communication, lack of empathy, and rigid working hours can impede employee effectiveness.

Importance of understanding and empathy

Absences due to mental health issues are often met with stigma and misunderstanding, unlike traditional leave. Workers fear judgment and career repercussions, deterring them from seeking necessary help. Unfortunately, hierarchical support is not always present, making it difficult to take leave for burnout or depression.

The process of requesting leave for mental health reasons is complex and discouraging, with employees feeling compelled to justify their need for rest, exacerbating their distress. Remarks minimizing the severity of their problems amplify this discomfort, creating additional pressure to quickly return to work and be more productive.

This taboo around mental health directly impacts productivity and staff well-being, leading to performance deterioration and increased extended sick leave. Consequently, if not effectively addressed, this phenomenon can contribute to the unemployment rate in Africa. Creating an environment where mental health is openly discussed and support is offered without suspicion promotes a healthier and more productive work climate for everyone.

Promotion of mental health : Government initiatives

Several African governments are implementing initiatives to enhance mental health in workplaces. Some have launched awareness programs to foster a better understanding of mental illnesses and promote healthy work environments. Others are focused on revising labor laws to incorporate protective measures. For instance, in Côte d’Ivoire, an assessment of the legal framework concerning mental health in workplaces is underway to raise awareness among workers and employers.

According to UNDP expert Prisca Brou, the United Nations System has implemented measures to reduce workplace stress, such as establishing mediators, offering flexible hours, and promoting telecommuting. Despite limited resources allocated to this area, some countries are increasing investments in employee well-being services. However, the average budget allocated by African governments for mental health remains insufficient. There is still much work to be done to ensure healthy and productive work environments for all African workers.

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