Nigeria: Five Supportive Workplace Strategies for Mental Health

Nigeria: Five Supportive Workplace Strategies for Mental Health

Introduction

We held our breath, as we watched the really amazing year 2020 expire. We welcomed 2021 with great hope mixed with uncertainty as the Covid-19 pandemic mutates into new strains, and countries get into a second or third wave of the disease. This preceding week, we received the news of more and more people contacting the disease – The United Kingdom, Germany and the United States all recorded their highest daily death tolls from the coronavirus pandemic. The U.S. recorded more than 4,000 daily Covid-19 deaths on Thursday, 7th January 2021 – the highest one-day total since the pandemic began. On Friday 9th January, the UK, who were first to detect new mutant variant of the disease, recorded 1,325 deaths of people who had tested positive for Covid-19. Also on Friday, 9th January, Germany reported a record 1,188 daily Covid-19 deaths, outstripping a previous record of 1,129 registered on December 30, 2020. Indeed, a focus on supportive workplace strategies for Mental Health is proper at this time. Work has been significantly impacted, by the pandemic. Ordinarily our workplaces can contribute immensely to our mental wellbeing, and also to our mental illness – hence, it is important that workplaces continue to pursue the mental health agenda.

While we like to romanticise about the few who are born into a trust fund that assures them of a work-free life – spending inherited money jetting off to Aspen in the middle of the week on a private plane, those rare privileged few with trust funds – that we all love to hate – are very rare to come by these days. It was reported that less than 2% of the U.S. population receives a trust fund – Life is expensive and even people with inherited money – see the numbers decrease considerably over time, if they do not work at it. Besides, “good” work is good for mental health.

So, for several of us, work is a key part of our lives. It is argued that, about a third of our lives is spent at work. Employers and employees alike bend over their desks daily, sweating for a steady pay cheque. Some Lawyers work up to 50 hours per week to meet their billable hour minimums, which can range between 1700 and 2300 hours a year. Many are working harder in these times. A focus on mental health, is very appropriate at this time. And building an enjoyable workplace, is essential for our mental health and general wellbeing. Good management and good mental health at work, have a close connection. More so, in these days of remote working with less and less physical human contact, leaving many vulnerable and at risk of mental health issues.

What is Mental health?

The events of the past 14 months, have turned most of us to wannabe mental health experts. Our mental health is the way we think and feel, and our ability to deal with ups and downs. The World Health Organisation superbly articulates, “There is no health without mental health.” When we talk about mental health, we are talking about our mental well-being: our emotions, our thoughts and feelings, our ability to solve problems and overcome difficulties, our social connections, and our understanding of the world around us. In the course of a lifetime, not all people will experience a mental illness, but everyone will struggle or have a challenge with their mental well-being (i.e., their mental health), just like we all have challenges from time to time with our physical health – the issue could be as small as a cold, sore throat or indigestion, or it could be grave.

Health sometimes, isn’t always black and white. There are several grey areas and different degrees of health. People can move on a spectrum or a trajectory ranging from great or good health, to average or poor health, to illness or infirmity. Mental health issue is comparable. Our mental health, does not always stay the same. It can vacillate as circumstances change, and as we move through different stages in our lives and careers. When we feel troubled, we need a compassionate, human response. The earlier we are able to recognise when something is not quite right, the earlier we can get support. It has been suggested that one in six people experience the symptoms of a mental health problem, in any given week. We all have times when we feel down, stressed or frightened. Most of the time the feelings pass, but sometimes, they can develop into a mental health problem like anxiety, aggression or depression, which can impact our daily lives and may require treatment. Concerns like work-related deadlines, health scare, quarantine, financial threats, can be threatening to our mental health if not well managed. When we enjoy good mental health, we have a sense of purpose and direction, the energy to do the things we want to do, and the ability to deal with the challenges that happen in our lives.

How do we Recognise Mental Health Issues?

As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, mental health awareness is increasing and the stigma around it is reducing. However, people still fear discrimination and keep their feelings hidden and well protected. Many work places still do not address the subject, nor provide the professional help that employees may need in this regard. There are countless signs of mental health problems in the workplace, and they may affect people in different ways; some are quite buried and difficult to detect, other signs have been accepted as normal – e.g. you might notice that you are more tired than usual – often feel drained, or you make unusual mistakes repeatedly, you find yourself procrastinating more than usual, find it hard to concentrate or motivate yourself, become easily temperamental – outbursts of anger or emotion; wanting to always separate yourself – avoiding colleagues or appear always preoccupied, have become untidy, or are not looking after your appearance as you normally would; intruding into others’ conversations and work, getting suspicious on a whim, have heightened insecurity, or taking on more work than you can manage; increased apathy or absence from work, sleeping less or perhaps drinking more, etc. In our society, we rarely link these signs to our mental health, and we usually underestimate or completely ignore these warning signs.

Employer Checklist for Creating Mentally Healthy Workplaces

In Nigeria, we do not have ready access to data. However, in the UK it is reported that having a long-term mental health problem may reduce life expectancy by 21 years, due to related physical health problems. And that about 6,000 people a year, die by suicide. The decision to divulge mental or emotional troubles at work, does not come easy. We must therefore, commit to reviewing the way we do business to ensure our everyday working culture is as mentally healthy as possible.

Promote a Culture of Openess – Encourage Staff to Speak Out

A culture of silence, is a good breeding ground for mental health issues. It can be hard to talk about feelings at work. If you are open about your feelings at work as a leader, it might encourage others to do the same. When we create workplace cultures where people are encouraged to express themselves, it becomes easier for people to speak about mental health concerns without fear, and to reach out for help when required. It is vital that workplaces become environments, where people feel safe to be themselves.

Keep Workforce Physically Active

Research has settled that regular exercise can boost your self-esteem and can help you concentrate, sleep, and look and feel better. Experts say that most people should do about 30 minutes’ exercise, at least five days a week. Exercising doesn’t just mean doing sports or going to the gym. Workplaces can creatively incorporate easy and enjoyable physical activities, as part of the workday. Encourage staff to get out for a walk around the block, take a compulsory lunch break. Make mental health and wellbeing core assets of your firm, and ensure mid and senior leaders are responsible for implementing these ancillary mental health programs.

Promote the Buddy System

Relationships are key to our mental health. Workplaces can promote the buddy system, by encouraging mentorships or small groups of trusted colleagues. Support the development of compassionate and effective line management relationships. Working in a supportive team, is hugely important for our mental health at work. We don’t always have a choice about who we work with, and if we don’t get on with managers, colleagues or clients, it can create tension. Work politics can be a real challenge, when we have mental health problems. There is a need for employers to address relationship difficulties – whether with clients or colleagues. Investing in good relationships among your employees, is a good investment. Experts say that loneliness may be as bad for our health, as smoking or obesity.

Promote Healthy Eating

Food is known to create bonding and wellbeing. What we eat can affect how we feel, both immediately and in the longer term. It can be hard to keep up a healthy pattern of eating at work. Workplaces can contribute immensely to an healthy eating agenda for employees – by creating awareness – bring in the experts, plan for mealtimes at work – choosing healthy options, plus providing more water spots within the office is ideal. Encourage staff to try and get away from their desk to eat. Try reducing caffeine and refined sugar in the office. Make sure there is a ready supply of fruit/vegetables and snacks like nuts or trail mix, that provide ready nutrients within budget. Some organisations have lunch clubs at work – where staff club together to share meals and try new things.

Promote Clean Leave Breaks

A change of scene or a change of pace, is essential for mental health. Workplaces should promote policies that ensure employees take clean breaks. It can be hard to take holidays and time off from work, because of workload. When we are stressed, it can seem even harder to take the break we are entitled to – when we need it most. Try and plan periods of leave for the year, so that your staff always have a break to look forward to. When employees are on leave or at home, resist the temptation to call them and encourage them not to check in. Rest is essential to our mental health. Without good breaks, mental health suffers, and concentration goes downhill. A good vacation is enough to de-stress anyone – Encourage employees to take clean breaks, and to ensure they use them well.

Emerging Issues in Constitutional and Electoral Reforms

This article by Festus Okoye discusses the amendments which have been made to the 1999 Constitution and the Electoral Act over the years, in a bid to improve the electoral process. He however, concludes that while holistic constitutional and electoral reforms are required to make the process even better, this feat cannot be achieved in one fell swoop; and therefore, suggests that those amendments, some of which he mentions, which have a direct impact on the electoral process should be implemented first, before the 2023 elections are upon us

The renewed effort by the National Assembly (NASS), the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and other critical stakeholders at constitutional and electoral reforms is timely, and must be sustained and approached with a sense of history and urgency. The reform efforts must be imbued with clearly defined timelines, priority interventions, strategic thinking and assemblage, inclusiveness and consultation. More fundamentally, the reforms must be impactful, approached from a bipartisan angle, shorn of divisive issues and concluded at least one year before the onset of “real” jostling for positions, ahead of the 2023 general elections.

It must be acknowledged that since the coming into force of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended) (‘the Constitution’) and the Electoral Act 2010 (as amended) (Electoral Act), a lot of progress has been made in constitutional and electoral reforms. This has been driven, facilitated and robustly canvassed by the electoral management body, the political parties, the Judiciary, Civil Society Groups and Organisations and Domestic and International Election Observers. Above all, the electorate has played crucial roles in driving some of these changes.

Amendments to the Constitution

The fourth Alteration to the Constitution introduced timelines for the resolution of pre- and post-election disputes, and this reversed the obscene and unacceptable situation where both pre- and post-elections disputes sometimes last for more than one electoral cycle. NASS also altered, and the President assented to the alteration of the Constitution that disqualifies a person who was sworn in as President or Governor to complete the term of the elected President or Governor from being elected to the same office for more than a single term, and for related matters. Section 225 of the Constitution was also altered to vest the Commission with the power to deregister a political party that breaches the requirements for registration, and or fails to meet certain thresholds in terms of winning elections and securing votes. NASS also altered the Constitution to reduce the age for qualification for the office of the President, membership of the House of Representatives and the State House of Assembly, and related matters.

Amendments to the Electoral Act

At the level of the Electoral Act, NASS carried out three amendments to the Act, informed by the reality of elections and the need for internal democracy in the political process. NASS created the INEC Fund, and placed the Commission on the First Line Charge. It amended the days of election, and the Commission was given the discretion to appoint days for the different strands of elections. Section 26 of the Act was amended to give the Commission the mandate to ensure that persons displaced as a result of an emergency, are not disenfranchised. Section 52 of the Act was amended to give the Commission the power to determine the voting procedure in elections, while, Section 87 of the Act was amended to guarantee more openness and transparency in party nomination processes, amongst other amendments.

Sad Reality

Unfortunately, alterations to the provisions of the Constitution with a bearing on the electoral process and amendments to the Electoral Act have all been incremental, episodic and miserly. Far-reaching recommendations of the Electoral Reform Committee (the Uwais Committee, 2007-2008); the Federal Government Investigation Panel on the 2011 Election Violence and Civil Disturbances (otherwise known as the Lemu Report); the Belgore Committee on the harmonisation of previous recommendations (2011); the National Conference (2014) and the Senator Nnamani Committee on Constitutional and Electoral Reform (2016), have not been given due consideration and attention.

With the time available to the current National Assembly, is it possible to carry out wholesale reforms of the constitutional and legal framework for the conduct of elections, before the onset of campaigns and positioning for the 2023 elections? The answer is no. This is because the processes and procedure for constitutional alteration as set out in Section 9 of the Constitution are cumbersome, and laced with political undercurrents. Consensus for the alteration of certain provisions with direct bearing on the electoral process have crystallised, and lumping such issues together with slightly or wholly contentious issues, may submerge them in a maze of controversy. The same thing applies to a few proposals on the table, for the amendment of the Electoral Act. This presupposes that the practical and rational approach is to pursue and effect alterations and amendments that are less contentious and enjoy some level of consensus, and they must be ones that are germane and fundamental to the success of the 2023 general election.

It must be borne in mind that, altering the provisions of the Constitution and amending the electoral legal framework will not automatically and without more, lead to improvement in the electoral process. The Constitution and the Electoral Act are not self-executory, and both operate through the actions and inactions of persons and institutions in the society. The Constitution and the Electoral Act will aid and ground our electoral process more firmly if the operators develop the democratic spirit grounded firmly on respect and fidelity to the constitution and the laws.

Meaningful, impactful, sustainable and enduring reforms at this point, must be informed by some fundamentals. These fundamental principles may not guarantee holistic reforms, but will give hope of a more credible electoral process. Purposeful, sustainable and impactful reforms must assist in deepening and entrenching internal democracy in political parties, and reduce the spate of pre-election litigation associated with internal wrangling and disagreements. It must promote inclusivity, deepen access to electoral services and expand participation especially of marginalised and excluded groups. It must strive to break the cycle of electoral impunity, by sanctioning violators and reducing electoral violence. It must deepen and hasten the deployment of technology in the electoral process, to reduce human interference and protect the health and safety of the people in the face of the current global pandemic.

Areas in Need of Constitutional amendments

Altering the provisions of the Constitution with a bearing on the electoral process, must be pursued simultaneously with amending the Electoral Act. It is axiomatic that the Constitution is the fundamental law of the land, and all other laws draw their energy, oxygen, potency and efficacy from the Constitution. From the reports and recommendations of INEC as well as that of domestic and international election observers, urgent action is needed in relation to provisions of the Constitution that are unclear, subject to multiple interpretations, and or have become an impediment to the administration and conduct of elections.

NASS, through the 4th Alteration to the Constitution, altered Section 285 of the Constitution and provided timelines for the filing and determination of pre and post-election disputes. This, no doubt was a progressive move borne out of experience from election petitions that sometimes drag on for periods ranging between four and ten years, to the embarrassment of the Bar, the Bench and the Nigerian people. Sometimes, the voters do not know the validly nominated candidate, even after the disposal of post-election litigations. The overlapping of pre-election matters into post-election period also poses planning, logistics and security challenges for the Commission. Sometimes multiple Court Orders and Judgements from Courts of coordinate jurisdiction are delivered and served on the Commission on the eve of elections, and this muddles up the Commission’s planning and deployment, just as it confuses the electorate.

NASS must therefore, in line with recommendations of previous Commissions and Panels, make it possible for all pre-election disputes to be concluded before the conduct of elections. This can be achieved by the reduction of the period for the determination of pre-election matters, in the Court of first instance. The Court of first instance can conclude all pre-election matters within a period of 60 days rather than 180 days, while the Court of Appeal can hear and deliver its judgement within a period of 30 days, rather than 60 days. All pre-election matters should terminate at the Court of Appeal.

NASS must also give due attention to the alteration of Sections 68, 109 and 117 of the Constitution relating to the resignation of members of the State and National Assembly, either to take up other assignments and/or to contest for other positions or on personal grounds. On resignation of membership, the seat of the member should automatically devolve to the candidate and political party that came second in the election, while the political party that sponsored a deceased candidate should replace him through their own internal party mechanisms. This will engender more respect for the sovereign right of the voters, make elected representatives more responsive and reduce the spate of bye-elections in Nigeria, thereby saving the taxpayers money.

It is also important for NASS to take a second look at the provisions of Section 225A of the Constitution, relating to the conditions for the deregistration of political parties. It is not right to make winning of the Chairmanship or Councillorship one of the criteria for deregistration of political parties, when the Commission does not conduct Local Government elections. The nexus between the Commission and State Independent Electoral Commissions is that the Commission is the only entity vested with the power to register political parties and conduct the Registration of Voters, and these are made available to the State Independent Electoral Commissions when they are conducting their elections. Section 78(7a) of the Electoral Act, 2010 (as amended) (which for all practical purposes is redundant) is better worded, and should be imported to replace Section 225A of the Constitution. It provides that “The Commission shall have power to deregister political parties on the following grounds – (I) breach of any of the provisions for registration, and (ii) failure to win Presidential or Governorship election or a seat in the National or State Assembly election”.