Breaking taboos: Better Work Sri Lanka launches nationwide programme to promote mental health in the workplace

8 May 2024

Colombo, Sri Lanka– Abstract art takes on a new purpose as drawings and posters, crafted by workers, grace walls and tables. In vibrant colours inspired by their environment and life experiences, these creations serve a unique objective. They are not the works of professional artists, but the outcome of a training initiative aimed at destigmatising mental health issues in the workplace and fostering self-exploration and healing.

In South Asian countries, like Sri Lanka, mental health discussions can be taboo and prioritizing mental health at work is yet to gain widespread acceptance. With a population of 21 million people, a noticeable shortage of trained mental health professionals persists in Sri Lanka. There are only 0.03 psychologists, 0.6 psychiatrists, and 2.9 mental health nurses per 100,000 people in the country, according to the World Health Organization.

To this end, the Better Work Sri Lanka programme, a partnership between the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the International Finance Corporation (IFC), together with support from the Levi Strauss Foundation and the European Union, has launched a national campaign aimed at promoting the importance of mental health and well-being (MHWB) in the workplace. The initiative, which targets workers in the manufacturing export sector, also aims to enhance job satisfaction and productivity.

Understanding the Root Cause

Forty-one professionally qualified counsellors from apparel factories, the Board of Investment (BOI), and local government authorities, and 31 staff from human resources departments completed the initial three-day workshop.

The goal of the workshop, using tools and techniques including role play, music therapy, sand tray, spectrogram, and art therapy, is to provide participants with the skills to promote mental health in their respective workplaces. Dr. Kumudu Ekanayake, workshop trainer and creative psychotherapist at the Sri Lanka Professional Psychological Counsellors’ Association, emphasized the importance of self-exploration before initiating mental health programmes. “Fostering change requires a shift in attitude and thought patterns, best achieved through practical applications and activities. It starts with personal change,” he said.

Based on a WHO/ ILO joint policy briefthat explains WHO global guidelines on mental health at work, Better Work aims to implement activities that “Prevent, Protect and Support” employees and organizations to reach the following objectives:

  • Reshaping work environments to minimize physiological risks and prevent workers from experiencing mental health conditions.
  • Strengthen awareness, skills, and opportunities for recognizing and acting early on mental health issues to promote and protect the mental health of all workers.
  • Support workers with mental health conditions to access, continue working, and thrive at work.

Impactful Outcomes

Workshop participant, Poshitha Delapola, Cluster Manager of Talent Development at Vogue Tex (Pvt) Ltd, said he “recognizes issues and cases that are frequently found in our manufacturing environment, from the lower tiers to the managerial level.”

“We should have an open door to address their problems and must implement solutions,” he added. Delapola plans to identify employees in the company’s factories for mental health awareness training and to expand the current initiative of opening help desks.

Better Work Sri Lanka’s Mental Health and Wellbeing (MHWB) Project lead, Eranthi Premaratne, highlighted four key areas for improvement in the manufacturing sector. These are raising awareness of mental health, reproductive health, financial literacy, and addiction; as well as enhancing access to support networks, and strengthening laws and policies to support the national mental health framework.

“We conducted a series of consultations with a cross-section of stakeholders, including policymakers, employers, employees, government institutions, and professionals, in formulating this programme, which we feel is imperative,” she noted. “We need to create awareness and an understanding of the importance of mental health, and how it directly impacts productivity among the workforce.”

A Comprehensive Approach to Mental Health and Well-being

The six-month programme serves as a stepping stone toward achieving a  long-term objective: creating a resilient workforce. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing economic crisis, the spillover effects on society cannot be ignored.

“By actively supporting projects that prioritize the psychological welfare of our workforce, we are not only enhancing productivity but also cultivating a healthier and more resilient working environment,”  said Nadeeka Andrahennadi, BOI Director, Industrial Relations.

Workshop participants will implement an action plan for their organizations, which will serve as a blueprint for creating an open-door policy for discussing mental health issues faced by employees.

Better Work Sri Lanka launched a MHWB awareness campaign together with the Board of Investment (BOI) at the Export Processing Zone in Biyagama in February, aimed at workers, managers, their families, and the wider community.  To raise awareness and help remove the stigma often associated with mental health issues, the campaign included street drama, a magazine printed in local languages, and mental health messages publicized in the media and through social media posts,

Better Work Sri Lanka is also collaborating with the BOI on a pilot project to facilitate the creation of dedicated wellbeing centers in the Export Processing Zones in Biyagama and Katunayak. The first center will open in Biyagama in June. The centers will be linked to support networks with counselling professionals, and full-time counsellors will provide services to workers at the export zones. Some 6,160 people have so far taken part in the training at the export zones in Biyagama, Katunayak, Koggala, and Avisawella

Better Work Sri Lanka aims to implement the programme by educating and creating awareness, upskilling professional MHWB counselors and support staff engaged in providing support facilities to those seeking help, and establishing new wellness centres and strengthening existing ones, to make counseling more accessible to employees, their families, and communities. A referral system provides free access to MHWB services offered by the government throughout Sri Lanka. The professional counsellors and human resources staff, who received mental health care training, can use this information to seek support or to refer their clients and their families.

“Our tailored training sessions underscore the crucial relationship between mental health and wellbeing and a productive workforce and society,” said Kesava Murali Kanapathy, Head of Better Work Sri Lanka. “Our goal is to create environments where conversations about MHWB are welcomed, encouraged, and embraced, and individuals receive support and feel empowered to navigate life’s challenges with resilience and compassion.”

Better Work Sri Lanka has also conducted training sessions promoting awareness of substance abuse, bringing together workers, managers, BOI staff and officials from the National Dangerous Drugs Control Board (NDDCB). A total of 1,750 people have participated in the sessions so far, which also include counselling.

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