Mental Health in the Workplace

Prepared by Daniel Amol,
Occupational Safety & Health and Environmental Management Professional

Historically, the definition of health has focused on the physical effects of disease or injury on the ability of the body to function. However over time, the world health organisation (WHO) broadened the definition to include other aspects. According to WHO, Health is defined as, “Physical, mental, and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease and infirmity”.People, Emotion, Dramatic, Female, Woman, Person

First, it is important to note that there is a difference between a mental disorder and mental Ill health. WHO defines Mental disorders as clinically significant conditions characterised by altered thoughts, emotions or behaviours with associated distress and impaired functioning e.g. dementia, schizophrenia etc (WHO, 2019). Many people exhibit symptoms of emotional distress, which may not be severe enough to warrant a mental disorder diagnosis, but can result in a significant amount of personal suffering, stress and low productivity.

In Kenya, mental ill health carries with it a lot of stigma and many individuals continue to suffer in silence. According to the study undertaken by the Kenya Board of mental illness, Negative attitudes towards mentally ill people were highly prevalent since 60% thought that these people are dangerous. The same trend was observed in the respondents’ attitude that the mentally ill are processed by demons (James, 2007) .However, statistics show that mental ill health is fairly common with estimates showing that one in four Kenyans will suffer from it at one point in their lives (Kanyoro, 2018).

One cause of mental ill health in the workplace is excessive stress. Stress under control is not a bad thing. It helps us stay focused on a task, can boost energy and enable the successful execution of complex tasks. However when the stress is prolonged, it starts to interfere with productivity, performance, physical and emotional health, and in turn affect your relationships and home life. Some common stressors in the workplace include, Lack of job security, Long working hours, repetitive tasks, lack of job description etc. Left unchecked, prolonged stress can lead to mental illness.

Some signs of prolonged stress can include

  • Feelings of anxiety, irritability, or depression
  • Apathy, loss of interest in work
  • Problems sleeping
  • Fatigue
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Muscle tension or headaches
  • Stomach problems
  • Social withdrawal
  • Loss of sex drive
  • Using alcohol or drugs to cope

In some cases the above symptoms are normalized and the sufferer may believe it is a part of life. Traditionally men are more susceptible to this due to the notion of “Manning up”. This makes it especially difficult for men to admit they are unable to cope with an excessively stressful environment. Suicide is often associated with mental ill health and statistics from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, show that out of the 421 suicide cases in 2017, 330 involved men (Kinuthia, 2018).

“A problem shared is a problem halved.” This is one of the simplest ways of preventing mental illnesses. Talking out loud and explaining our problems to others helps in clarifying the problem at hand. Conversely keeping things inside often leads to overthinking which magnifies the issue to outrageous proportions. Workplaces are encouraged to provide avenues for the workers to freely express themselves to build a solid support system.

When we overly focus on work, we tend to neglect our physical health. But when you’re supporting your health with good nutrition and exercise, you’re stronger and more resilient to stress. People who exercise regularly tend to do so because it gives them an enormous sense of well-being. They feel more energetic throughout the day, sleep better at night, have sharper memories, and feel more relaxed and positive about themselves and their lives. These effects make it a powerful medicine for many common mental health challenges. Some workplaces have already tapped into this knowledge and give their employees time to engage in physical activities in the middle of the day. For most employees, it is not possible to take a 30-60 minute break to exercise. Michigan State University Extension recommends some simple exercises that can get you moving within the work shift. (Earnesty, 2015). These include:

  •  Leg lifts while working on your computer
  • Parking in the far end of the parking lot
  • Standing or walking around during calls
  • Locating the file cabinet, water dispenser, copier etc. across the room, making you get up when you need an item
  • Using the restroom that is farthest away from your work station
  • 10 push-ups every hour
  • Walking around the building during lunch break
  • Using the stairs instead of the elevator

Sleep deprivation is regularly getting less than 7 hours of sleep (Cherney, 2019). This results in reduced brain function affecting our focus, energy levels and general performance. According to the National Sleep Foundation (USA) Persistent sleep deprivation increases the risk for new onset or recurrent episodes of major depression by between 2 – 10 times. There is also good evidence that insomnia is a risk factor for the development and/or recurrence of anxiety disorders and substance abuse (Perlis, 2004).

Having a regular sleep cycle is a challenge in workplaces with shift work. Some administrative controls can be enforced to promote better sleep and in turn promote mental health. The occupier can limit the number of night or irregular shifts an individual can take in a row to prevent sleep deprivation from mounting up. Workers should also be enlightened on ways to improve their sleep quality e.g. (foundation, 2019):

  • Eliminating noise and light from the bedroom during the day.
  • Adjusting sleep-wake cycle by exposing oneself to bright light when awake at night and using bright lamps or daylight-simulation bulbs in your workplace. Then, wearing dark glasses on the journey home to block out sunlight and encourage sleepiness.

Employees who are suffering from work-related stress can lead to lower productivity, lost workdays, and a higher turnover of staff. There is a rise in awareness on the socio economic impacts of mental ill health and as a result the importance of promoting it has also been on the rise (Investing in mental Health, 2003).

By creating awareness on mental illness in the workplace, workers will be better equipped to identify situations that may trigger it and address them before they get overwhelmed. We all have the responsibility of creating awareness on mental health issues to ensure no individual suffers due to lack of information.
What are you going to do to promote mental well being in your workplace?

Cherney, S. W. (2019, April 19). The Effects of Sleep Deprivation on Your Body. Retrieved from Healthline:

Dependence, W. D. (2003). Investing in mental Health. Geneva: WHO.

Earnesty, D. (2015, August 25). Exercise at work: Is it possible and what are the benefits? Retrieved from MSU extension:

foundation, N. S. (2019). Earplugs and Eye Masks Help Promote Sleep. Retrieved from National Sleep Foundation:

James, M. (2007). Stigma towards mental illness and the mentally ill in a rural community in Kenya. Nairobi: University of Nairobi.

Kanyoro, D. K. (2018). THE STATE OF MENTAL HEALTH IN KENYA. Nairobi: University of Nairobi.

Kinuthia, K. (2018, June 24). Kenya suicide rate hits ten-year high. Retrieved from Business Daily Africa:

Perlis, M. (2004). Sleep Hygiene, Insomnia and Mental Health. Retrieved from National Sleep Foundation: health

WHO. (2019). Mental Health. Retrieved from World Health Organisation:

Disclaimer: This article was written by external OSH Consultant not affiliated with OSH Pro Services. OSH Pro Services can therefore not be held responsible for the correctness, or any other issue related to the content of the article.