What is the real meaning of mental health?

The answer to this question is neither unique nor singular, and our own experiences pose a considerable weight. To many people, being confronted with the term mental health triggers images of pain, stress and anxiety. Mental health is not exclusively associated with pain nor with a constant state of joy and happiness.

In general, people with favorable mental health are understood as aware of their potential and capable of dealing with the stress associated with daily tasks – being them personal or work-related – and can perform activities in a productive manner.

More and more, mental health is being incorporated into corporate agendas. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way individuals understand their relationship with work. There is a growing body of literature that recognizes the importance of well-being and mental health at work on the quality of life of employees, the financial sustainability of an organization and the quality of work that is being produced. Besides, companies have a crucial role that goes beyond generating profit. Now, more than ever, society expects companies to incorporate ESG - Environmental, Social and Governance – standards, acting as agents of social change.

The stress inherent to the nature of the job, interpersonal relationships, and work schedules are among the causes leading to the deterioration of mental health. Often, this deterioration in mental health status is characterized by high levels of exhaustion and low professional effectiveness, ultimately triggering one of the most prevalent syndromes in our society, burnout.

The COVID-19 pandemic, specifically the social isolation and remote work brought changes to the routines and the growing use of technology has led to a state of "always-on”. What we used to know as a working and a personal/familiar space is no longer present. We have seen the boundary between personal and professional life fall, which brings us to a new concept: work-life integration.

These new challenges have proven to be too demanding, especially in a country whose responses to these issues have proven to be deeply insufficient. During this period, we have witnessed an exponential increase of individuals experiencing feelings of loneliness, depression, anxiety, and stress, which has led to profound short and long-term damage to society and organizations, as several studies have shown.

It is easy to understand that we are facing a "time bomb" in organizations. A survey promoted by the Ricardo Jorge National Institute is a good demonstration of this when it shows that in every ten Portuguese citizens who were quarantined due to COVID-19, seven were revealed to be in psychological distress, and it was mostly young adults and women who show symptoms of anxiety and moderate to severe depression.

Traditionally, health and wellness issues have been a nice-to-have. However, there is no longer any doubt that the pandemic of COVID-19 has significantly changed the way organizations look at, and manage, the health and wellbeing of their workforce. The environment of the last two years has reinforced the importance of well-being at work, making occupational and mental health a priority on the agenda of the world's leaders.

It is no longer news that the problem of mental health in Portugal is serious and real. It is reported that 1 in every 5 Portuguese suffers, or has suffered, from mental illness, thus placing our country at high risk concerning mental health.

The situation takes on more worrying proportions when we are confronted with data from the Ordem dos Psicólogos Portugueses and APPSO (2016), which reveal that about 14% of active professionals in Portugal suffered from burnout and 82% were at high risk of exposure to the disease (Expresso, 2019). These numbers translate into losses in motivation, productivity and, ultimately, financial performance.

Other international studies have characterized the Portuguese panorama in terms of mental health, such as the State of the Global Workplace report (Gallup, 2021), which places Portugal at the top of the list of countries, among the 18 Western European respondents, where the population experiences more moments of worry throughout the day. At the same time, Portugal is in last place in regard to countries where the population perceives that they have the best life possible. Also, in terms of the number of times people feel sad during the day, Portugal ranks second and fifth in the perception of daily stressful moments and situations.

More recently, Portugal was once again put in the negative spotlight in Europe. Among the 26 countries analyzed in a study by Small Business Prices (2021), our country was positioned in first place in a ranking that evaluates the risk of burnout in the European Union.

Despite the grey mental health picture that has been painted over Portugal, it is unequivocal that we are facing a paradigm shift. Today, we are witnessing a trend to evolve from a reactive model, through the provision of benefits such as psychological support, to a preventive model that involves educating individuals about health and wellbeing issues.

It is important to keep in mind that mental health is not just a problem for those who suffer from it. It is imperative to make a joint commitment, through which the State, public and private entities, schools, universities, families and, above all, each one of us actively contribute to the inclusion and demystification of the stigma associated with mental health, which continues to be a heavyweight to carry.

This reality, now unavoidable, will be more effective and successful if the commitment is put into adopting best practices by all social actors.

Where is your Company on this journey?

Have a great and impactful week!

José Sintra
Head of People Strategy
VdA - Vieira de Almeida

This article refers to edition #138 of the "Have a Great and Impactful Week" Newsletter and covers SDG 3.
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