In recent months, issues surrounding mental health have been a major topic of discussion in Kenya after the Senate approved the Mental Health (Amendment) Bill, 2020, writes Njeri Wagacha, a partner at Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyer.
The Bill provides a framework to promote the mental health and wellbeing of everyone in Kenya by placing obligations on the government to make mental health facilities more accessible and affordable to all. Notably, the Bill provides for the right of a person suffering from mental illness to access medical insurance for treatment from public or private health insurance providers. Where the government has put a medical scheme in place, they are required to consider the needs of people with mental illness and ensure that the scheme results in the fair treatment of such persons.
As lawyers, we all experience the stresses and strains of legal practice in our workplace, which may be detrimental to our mental health. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Chris Mureithi, a growth, personal and corporate development consultant, on my podcast,Njeri Talks Law, on taking care of one’s mental health in the workplace.
Legal practice is a fast-paced, high-pressure work environment where constant stress can lead to mental health illnesses such as anxiety and depression. In many cases, this leads to increased absenteeism, ultimately affecting the “billable hour”. During my discussion with Chris, he mentioned that preserving mental health in the workplace is a joint responsibility between employees and employers.
As an employee, you need to be internally equipped to handle the situations you are placed in during your employment. Chris emphasised that “no one can avoid feelings of stress in the workplace. However, how we react to these situations makes the difference.”
Employees should be aware of the things that trigger their anxiety or depression, and be informed of healthy coping mechanisms which can help them deal with these situations, like exercising, taking short walks, using breathing techniques, and taking a moment to organise your workload.
Employers are responsible for creating a safe and conducive work environment for their employees. One way of doing this is by taking time to know more about their employees, including understanding the state of their mental health from the time they start and throughout their period of employment. This knowledge sets the tone for the employment relationship; it will also inform the leadership style an employer chooses to adopt and will help them identify ways to support the specific needs of employees.
Firm culture also plays a crucial role in cultivating and protecting employees’ mental health. Various studies have proven that toxic work cultures significantly contribute to mental health issues among employees. This is especially important in places where “putting in facetime”, working weekends and prioritising client demands above all, are the norm.
It is becoming increasingly important for employers to take the wellbeing of their employees into consideration before other factors such as achieving the law firm’s bottom line. This is especially true now in the age of the “great resignation” where employees are far less likely to remain in employment for the sake of employment. Employers must consider the importance of retaining employees and fostering an environment that encourages retention.
A healthy work culture can be nurtured by creating a forum through which employees can provide honest feedback to their employers without the risk of sanction. Employers should be willing to receive that feedback and implement some of the suggestions provided by the employees. “You lose talent if you are not willing to have an open conversation with those that you lead,” commented Chris. Employees who feel they are in an environment that genuinely considers their views and needs are more willing to go the extra mile for their employer.
While the preservation of employees’ mental health in the workplace may come across as an unreasonable burden on employers, mental health is an important facet which affects a person’s overall wellbeing. Helping to ensure that the workplace is a safe and conducive environment for employees actually contributes to the firm’s overall success.
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