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Work-related mental stress has been
described as the adverse reaction experienced by workers when workplace demands
and responsibilities are greater than the worker can reasonably manage or are
beyond the workers’ capabilities. Therefore, it has been advocated that
employers need to balance both demands and resources in the workplace in order
to manage work-related mental stress.  This is because high levels of
job demand and low levels of job resources could easily result in mental stress
for the workers.

Mental health is an integral component of
Occupational Safety and Health (OSH), which is a primary concern of labour and
employment law. A safe workplace is not only about physical safety – it’s
about the worker’s psychological safety too. This means that employers
have a duty of protecting the safety, health and welfare of their workers. The
enjoyment of these standards at the highest levels is a basic human right that
should be accessible by each and every worker. Regardless of the nature of
their work, workers should be able to carry out their responsibilities in a safe
and secure working environment, free from all forms of hazards.
The law provides for compensation to
workers who have experienced mental stress in the course of their employment.
The Employee’s Compensation Act, 2010 (“ECA”) provides that compensation is
available to an employee who suffers mental stress, where the mental stress is
an acute reaction to a sudden and unexpected traumatic event arising out of or
in the course of the employee’s employment; or if the employee has been
diagnosed by a medical practitioner as suffering from mental stress arising out
of the nature of work or the occurrence of any event in the course of the
employee’s employment. See section 8 ECA.
Section 8 (2) of the ECA provides that
where the mental stress is caused by the decision of the employer to change the
work or the working condition in such a way as to unfairly exceed the work
ability and capacity of the worker (thereby leading to mental stress), such
situation shall be liable to compensation to the degree as may be determined
under any regulation made by the Nigeria Social Insurance Trust Fund (NSITF).
The NSITF is the statutory body charged with the responsibility of
administering the Employee’s Compensation Scheme (ECS) established under the
ECA.
It is pertinent to note that the ECS is a
social security/welfare scheme that provides comprehensive compensation to
employees who suffer from occupational diseases or sustain injuries arising
from accidents at the workplace or in the course of employment. The basis for
‘compensation’ is the employer’s duty of care. The idea of compensation
suggests that someone has suffered a wrong for which he has to be compensated
monetarily. This implies that another person has a duty to prevent the
occurrence of the wrong suffered. Payment of compensation by the employer to
the worker is rooted in the accepted common law principle that the employer has
a duty of care, a duty to protect the health, welfare and safety of the
workers. Where the worker sustains injuries, gets ill or dies under work-related
circumstances, the employer is liable to pay compensation to the worker or to
his dependents, in the event of death. The ECS is funded by monthly
contributions from employers for the purpose of this compensation, as may be
required from time to time by deserving workers.
The system of compensation for occupational
mental stress established under the ECA is laudable, even though it also poses
certain challenges for affected workers. First, having to prove that the
worker’s mental stress actually relates to his/her work is tough, especially in
an environment like Nigeria that is plagued with many other intervening
factors. Second, it is doubtful if monetary compensation is adequate for
victims of occupational mental stress or if full rehabilitation of the victim
is possible in all cases. It is against the foregoing that it is argued that a
better system of compensation is the type that mirrors contemporary frameworks
for OSH, which are designed to be proactive rather than reactive to the
physical, social and mental aspects of the workers’ health. Just like physical
infirmities, mental health problems in the workplace are a global phenomenon.
In Nigeria, the typical work environment is full of precipitating factors such
as:
i. High quantitative
and qualitative workload,
ii. Inconsiderate
work schedules,
iii. Poor
remuneration, deficient welfare package, delayed/unpaid salaries,
iv. Neglect of
safety measures, etc.
All these translate to an increase in the
risk of mental health problems in the workplace. Unlike the ‘loud’ nature of
physical health problems, mental health problems in workers is a ‘silent’
phenomenon, which goes unnoticed and may be confused with lack of commitment to
the job. Unrecognized mental health problems in the workplace can affect
performance and productivity, hence the need for organizations to be
proactively pre-occupied with promoting and ensuring both the physical and
mental health of its employees. Beyond the issue of high quantitative and
qualitative workload, closer attention should also be paid to physical features
of the workplace like lighting, ventilation, work space, sanitation and noise
levels.
Organisations can manage and prevent stress
by improving conditions at work. While the common treatment for mental health
problems is prescriptive medication, employers have a role in making
adjustments and helping the affected individual to manage the problem at work.
Some of the suggestions that have been advanced by experts in the field of OSH
include the following:
1.     Having senior
management committed to reduce workplace stress;
2.     Consulting with
workers to create and promote a mentally healthy workplace culture;
3.     Use validated risk
assessment processes;
4.     Ensuring the
organisation has appropriate policies and procedures in place and workers are
aware of these;
5.     Managing workplace
psychosocial risk factors and stressors;
6.     Providing regular
and respectful performance feedback;
7.     Having a
‘Harassment Contact Officer’ in place for workers to speak to;
8.     Provide training
around managing workplace and individual stress levels;
Mental health is an intricate but pressing
workplace issue with multiple consequences. Occupational demands can be highly
stressful and many jobs make severe demands in terms of responsibility, time,
and performance. Rather than continuing with a culture of indifference, denial
and evasion, there is need for Nigerian workplaces to recognize mental health
as a realistic and legitimate concern, as well as display total commitment to
the implementation of policies and practices that will ensure a supportive
framework for workers.

Michael Dugeri

Regulatory compliance & commercial law advisor




Source: Linkedin