0928 GMT June 24, 2019
A senior manager at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) had fallen out of the window of his 17th floor office at the company’s Delta Towers premises in Westlands, Nairobi, Kenya.
Stephen Mumbo, the company’s Business Recovery Services manager, would later succumb to his injuries, nation.co.ke wrote.
Even as his death became the subject of police investigations, there was widespread speculation that Mumbo had plunged to his death owing to work-related pressure and depression.
Coincidentally, this was a day after the universal commemoration of the World Mental Health Day.
PwC’s lead partner in Kenya, Peter Ngahu, said that the firm would start offering counselling services to all its employees.
Globally, clinical depression, stress and anxiety disorders are regarded as a potent threat to the economy, with its devastating effects placed in the same category with HIV/AIDS and heart diseases.
Depression affects people in their prime working years. Mumbo was 41. If left untreated, it could last a lifetime, experts warn.
In the US, for instance, depression costs the economy $51 billion annually due to absenteeism and lost productivity. An additional $26 billion goes to treatment costs.
The figures may not be as staggering locally, but the prevalence and economic consequences of depression and other mental illnesses in Kenya are nonetheless shocking.
Statistics from the World Health Organization (WHO) show that 1.9 million Kenyans are battling depression at different stages.
The majority of these are people aged below 35 years and in the most productive stage of their lives. Others are millennials leaving school and entering the job market.
What is more astonishing though is that these are only the cases that have been clinically diagnosed.
Dr. Lukoye Atwoli, a psychiatrist, argued that prevalence of mental health illnesses in Kenya could be close to five million people, going by findings of a 2018 survey by Dr. Edith Kwobah and others that was published in the BMC Psychiatry journal.
Have you been feeling unusually exhausted, even after waking up in the morning? Are you no longer able to meet your deadlines at work?
Has your enthusiasm plunged? Is the pressure of your daily routine suddenly too much to keep up with? You just might be experiencing depression.
During the World Mental Health Day in 2017, Director of Medical Services Jackson Kioko said that depression accounts for 10 percent of absenteeism from work, and loss of 36 working days in each episode of depression among employed people.
A 2014 Mental Health Atlas survey by WHO showed that 46 percent of African countries had not implemented any mental health policies of note.
To plug this gap, Dr. Kioko called for workplace health policies that would promote and support employee wellness and work-life balance.
A cursory glance at most local organizations two years later, however, paints a picture of companies suffering from the effects of employee depression and losing both talent and revenue, directly or indirectly.
So, how much revenue do organizations lose as a result of a depressed workforce? Are local employers cognizant of the effects of depression-related complications?
What mechanisms have various companies put in place to take on depression? Just how bad is the situation?
Findings from different surveys show that an estimated 10 percent of working Kenyans take time off work every year to deal with depression and other mental health issues.
May Nyaga, a senior human resource manager at Copy Cat Group, said that depression continues to affect the economy because most businesses do not treat it as a health issue with the potential to bear on their balance sheet.
“Absenteeism from work and delay in delivery of customer service affects the company’s image and leads to loss of business. When the output of an employee suddenly skids, it affects other employees’ morale, making it difficult to meet the company’s revenue targets and overall performance,” Nyaga said.
As a result, employers suffer losses due to low productivity, increased staff turnover and high welfare payments.
“The majority of organizations threaten and even dismiss their employees for depression-related non-performance. The root cause of the problem is rarely addressed,” she notes.
Nyaga added, “When an employee who has been outstanding suddenly starts to report to work late, or even missing work, is poorly groomed and they become withdrawn without any justification, this obviously raises a red flag,” she said.
“You cannot ignore such early triggers.”
Nyaga said that identifying depression symptoms in employees is easier during the hiring stage where recruiters interact with job applicants.
“Some job candidates break down during the interview. Others are mentally absent even as they seem to listen to the interviewing panel,” she said.
Psychologist Lucy Mukuria, however, said that it is difficult for employers to detect depression within their workforce due to lack of expertise in the area.
“Businesses must engage qualified mental health providers to conduct quarterly or biannual check-ins with their staff,” she said, adding, “Advice given by mental health caregivers must be followed.”
When a local office technology company recently carried a survey seeking to establish how their employees relate at work, the results were disheartening.
It emerged that the workers did not have friends at work, merely had functional work relations; they felt that no one cared about them in the work environment and that their efforts were unrecognized.
Interestingly, the survey also indicated that men are more affected by depression in workplaces as opposed to women who occasionally convene in informal groups to share their personal concerns.
“This clearly shows employers hardly take time to know their employees. Besides, managers and supervisors are handed their roles purely on the basis of their competencies. People skills are rarely considered,” Nyaga noted.
She added, “Such managers tend to solely focus on achieving targets while ignoring personal challenges that members of their teams might be going through. This ultimately inhibits delivery of results.”
Kenyan organizations are slowly realizing the effects of mental health issues, with a number of them now in different stages of enhancing employee experience.
From 2015, the country’s Ministry of Health has been implementing the Kenya Mental Health Policy 2015-2030 hoping to attain the highest standards of mental health in the country.
Priority actions of the policy include workplace programs to help workers handle stressful work-life situations, strategies to eliminate stigma to persons with mental health problems and alcohol and substance abuse prevention and management.