by James Vella Clark
Mental wellbeing depends on a unique mix of personality traits that are mostly genetic in nature, but then there is also our upbringing with family, school, friends, neighbours, and colleagues which affects us. Therefore, although there are people with a genetic predisposition to develop depression and anxiety, a person who as a child grows in an unsafe critical environment might also be battered down and impacted by the cultural and societal environment, in which they grow up.
Over the past few years, especially since the onset of the global COVID pandemic, the common discourse surrounding the topic of mental health has increasingly been dealing mostly with the importance of safeguarding mental wellbeing in the workplace. However, when looking at this topic, we are increasingly having to face the fact that being content and serene at work is not enough. Half of our lives is beyond our place of work and societal factors such as culture, politics and country policies interact and impact a person’s wellbeing as much as stress at work does.
After all, even Sigmund Freud described a psychologically healthy life as being that where one is engaged both in work and in significant relationships in a way that a person lives a balanced life.
The Social Perspective
“There will however always be people who struggle with all sorts of problems – from addictions, emotional or financial difficulties, solitude and separation to poverty, homelessness, health conditions and bereavement. Many just cannot cope with the stress and eventually, what they would think is a solution, turns out to be a much bigger and overwhelming problem,” says Anthony Gatt, CEO of Caritas.
At Caritas, an organisation that has been supporting individuals through social work, counselling interventions and support groups for over 37 years, Anthony Gatt faces society’s problems every day.
“Although we assist and support individuals with problems, the bigger problem is no longer an individualistic one but a societal one. Yes, it is true that in Malta, we are still lucky enough to have systems in place such as free healthcare and support, but we also need to face the fact that the challenges that our society is facing are deteriorating challenges that are affecting our collective mental health.”
“Overpopulation, reduced green areas, the widening gap between rich and poor, the strains for low-income families, rich families who live an unsustainable lifestyle – these are all situations that are contributing to a deterioration of our overall mental health and wellbeing,” he explains.
This is where nurture comes in – because an individual is as strong as his or her upbringing.
“Whereas society will never cease throwing challenges at us, our problem lies in the fact that we are not raising resilient future generations. Reports from teachers at schools show us that children seem to be less resilient in coping with normal life’s stresses. As a result, anxiety is on the increase in both children and young adults, and it is becoming increasingly harder to engage children because of their short attention spans. This, in turn, brings added anxiety at the family level which in turn affects the working parents who carry their problems to work. It’s a vicious cycle.”
Anthony Gatt explains how he witnesses families struggling in a range of ways mostly with regards to parenting and that the children who are struggling most are the ones who lack discipline, parental attention and positive control.
“Today’s children are left to their own devices. Literally. Their parents or carers are too busy with work because they need to cope with life’s demands, which are often dictated by societal expectations. Children are growing up having it easy and pampered by parents who are often anxious and not capable of coping with life. So children are growing up incapable of handling adversity.”
“This situation has now transcended the family unit and permeated most segments of society characterised by an individualistic and undisciplined culture. In the same way that children need authoritative parents, society needs leaders, politicians, structures, and authorities that are also authoritative.”
“Personally, many things concern me – property development without permits but with impunity; people dying on construction sites because of a lack of a health and safety culture; persons allowed to grow cannabis without any level of control or registration; the lack of sustainable development, the widespread use of cocaine in practically every place of entertainment and the dwindling respect for authority. These are not only alarm bells but also time bombs, some of which have already started exploding in our faces.”
There are also the effects of the pandemic which are still being felt especially where most children missed out socially and academically, which led to decreased engagement with school, extra-curricular activities and life in general.
“Remote working, coupled with the uncertainty that the pandemic brought with it, contributed more anxiety to the family unit and as people became more isolated, solitude kicked in. I would say that solitude could very well be one of the most painful contributors to the state of mental wellbeing in many people.
How can we collectively work towards better mental wellbeing?
“If we keep expecting perfection from everything around us, we are bound for constant disappointment. Therefore, a good way to start is by adopting a realistic view of the world around us and accepting that nothing and no one is perfect. Accepting this reality gives us preparedness for adversity. Developing healthy behavioural coping mechanisms is another facet of mental wellbeing. So, reaching out to friends, using sport as an emotional outlet or engaging in interesting activities can all be natural and soothing emotional pain killers. And this is where mental wellbeing at work becomes important, if not crucial.”
Mental Wellbeing at the Workplace
The issue of mental health at the workplace turns out to be greater than one would imagine according to Misco’s recently published third edition of its Employee Wellbeing at the Workplace Survey.
“As ‘pandemic fatigue’ kicks in, a culture change is needed where all stakeholders need to collaborate in a more emphatic and compassionate manner. The good news is that more companies are putting this subject higher on their agenda,” says Joanne Bondin, Director of Misco.
92% of employers who responded to the survey in fact admitted that they feel it is the employer’s role to do something about the mental wellbeing of their people.
Whilst Misco’s survey confirmed an increase from last year’s 63% to this year’s 79% of employees who experienced stress and anxiety related to work, even fewer respondents (63%) rated their mental wellness positively compared to last year (69%). The research also showed that pressure (50%), heavy workload (43%) and tight deadlines (41%) are often experienced at work. Interestingly, whereas in 2021 job insecurity was marked as a stressor by 9% of respondents, this decreased to 3% this year.
“Mental health in the workplace has become a pressing issue and the pandemic continued to highlight the importance of having an environment that is conducive to positive mental health.
Whilst more employees have been gradually returning to the office, remote working and flexibility in work time have increased in popularity and these have undeniably put pressure on work-life balance initiatives that may have been appropriate in the past but need to be reconsidered due to the new ways of working.
Asked about which work-life balance initiatives they are offered at work, the majority of respondents (47%) mentioned that their organisation offers more flexible hours, followed by an employee assistance programme/therapy (23%). 22% mentioned that they have an open communication culture at their workplace.
“Mental health issues are dictating a big part of the agenda at the workplace and with the immense changes that our society has been experiencing, employers, rightly so, are increasingly dedicating more attention by implementing initiatives to address this,” added Ms Bondin.
“As employees too are raising their expectations, a culture change needs to be triggered where all stakeholders come together to work and collaborate in a more compassionate manner,” she concluded.
A Corporate Perspective
“Our work at McDonald’s has become more challenging, especially after the pandemic so as a company that wants to remain true to its values, we are fully committed to providing support, safety and wellbeing to all our employees,” says Consuela Barbara, Director of HR at McDonald’s.
“To better safeguard our employees’ wellbeing, we decided to offer our employees a more flexible roster, we are giving extra leave days which they are using to carry voluntary work and we have introduced more team activities. Our HR department also operates an open-door policy, and all employees are encouraged to reach out to us if they encounter any difficulty in their life so that we try and support them as much as possible.”
One specific initiative at McDonald’s is the Emergency Support Scheme to support employees in case of a personal crisis or emergency, either financial or as special leave to cope with travel expenses for health reasons or to visit a sick relative.
“We are also conducting training on anxiety issues, on how to handle customers with autism in view of our first restaurant offering quiet space for persons with autism, training in safety, anti-harassment, and anti-discrimination and pushing initiatives in favour of women empowerment, diversity, inclusion, and equality. We also supported our employees to attend a number of information sessions as part of a mental health campaign organized by Aġenzija Żgħażagħ,” added Ms Barbara.
“Over the coming months, we are planning more training to continue to raise awareness on mental health and will keep encouraging our people to participate in collective events such as fun runs and occasional awareness campaigns such as Pink October and Movember.”
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