EMPLOYEE MENTAL HEALTH – DOES IT MATTER?
As a society we witnessed workforces struggle with the stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic, experienced the mental stresses of social isolation, and struggled to achieve work-life balance whilst working remotely; all of which has taken an enormous toll on our ‘mental health’. Employees are valuable assets of any organization, and ensuring their excellent mental and physical health sets them up to perform well. The health and wellness of employees generally have a direct effect on the efficiency and profits of a company. Numerous employers recognize this and are prepared to spend money on such programs. Employee Wellness Programs are services dedicated on the promotion or maintenance of good health rather than the correction of poor health. The programs are designed to concentrate on preventive healthcare rather than reactive that could raise insurance rates and other related consequences that may arise from an unhealthy working environment; higher medical cost resulting to a lower profit to the company. In 2003, the Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA) adopted the following definition of Employee Wellness:
“A set of organized activities and systematic interventions, offered through Corporations /worksites, managed care organizations, and governmental /community agencies, whose primary purposes are to provide health education, identify modifiable health risks, and influence health behaviour changes.”
How important is Employee Wellness? Even though the advantages of the program may be difficult to see at initial phase, staff that are energetic usually bring a variety of benefits to to the companies they work for. These are some of the benefits of an employee wellness program:
- Increase of productivity
- Enhance employee morale
- Improve employment and retention rates among employees
- Reduce absenteeism
- Decrease health risks
- Create closer relation among staffs
Fears about mental health among employees especially in healthcare industry has become predominant in the Covid-19 pandemic era. Over the period since the earlier phases of the pandemic back in 2020, abundant of articles have exposed that numerous incidents among staff in multiple industries have been struggling with their mental health; for instance, fatigues and loss of patience in work, and some have turned to taking extreme actions in reaction to such struggles. It is unquestionable that these worries and incidents cause following concerns over health and safety issues, the worsening Covid-19 situation, having to be confined to a space during lockdown in isolation, stressing over financial problems, and work performance coupled with the fear of losing jobs. Healthcare workers or clinical staffs (known as frontliners) are mostly in the situation of fear to the risk of virus infection in delivering daily healthcare services to the patients.
With this current trend happening for the past 2 years, an observation has been done to observe actions taken by the employer in safeguarding employee’s mental health issues in this pandemic age. Most of the hospitals are putting priority actions in combating and stabilizing the business in order to sustain future undertakings in the current economic instability with none of the initiatives focusing on the difficulties and stress arises from the ‘new norms’ implemented in the workplace. Under Section 15 of OSHA 1994, employers owe a duty to ensure, so far as is practicable, the safety, health, and welfare at work of all of their employees. If found guilty under OSHA 1994, an employer may be liable to a fine of up to RM50,000.00 and/or imprisonment of up to 2 years . The OSHA 1994 seemingly places focus on the physical aspects of safety by requiring employers to ensure that employees are working in a safe and secure work environment and does not specifically emphasize on employees’ mental health. Hence, there is no specific common law duty of care owed by employers to their employees to oversee the well-being of an employee’s mental health and there is no offense under Malaysian law for negligent infliction of mental suffering or intentional infliction of mental suffering.
The current challenging period we are facing now serves as a vital reminder that mental well-being is as valuable as physical well-being, particularly in light of the host of mental and physical stressors many are facing as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. It is relevant to note that the situation of the law on liability of employers in relation to the mental health of their employees in Malaysia remains indistinct, and it remains to be seen whether the governing body will introduce changes to the law and/or whether the Courts will decide on a case that touches upon mental health in the workplace, in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, within the perspective of the on-going pandemic, employers should take “reasonable” and “practicable” actions to avoid incurring potential liability, particularly in making sure that the workforce is in decent condition physically and mentally.
KPJ Klang Specialist Hospital