Prominent voices in the fields of anti-poverty, mental health and trade unionism told The Shift that one of the major reasons why full-time workers suffer from mental stress is because salaries are too low for them to make ends meet.
NGOs Alleanza Kontra l-Faqar (alliance against poverty) and Richmond Foundation, as well as former trade unionist Sammy Meilaq, were responding to The Shift’s questions about a mental health survey published on 9 August, carried out by MISCO and published in The Times of Malta.
The survey’s results suggest that around 68% of respondents experienced a mental health problem directly related to their job in the last 12 months.
The survey also suggested that 52% of respondents work more than 40 hours a week, that 47% described their stress levels as poor – very poor, and that 72% said they never disclosed ‘unmanageable’ levels of stress or mental health issues to their employers.
“The lack of satisfaction with salaries is one of the causes of mental stress; the majority of workers I speak to directly are stressed because they feel that they are highly undervalued as workers,” Matthew Borg, the chairperson of Alleanza Kontra l-Faqar, told The Shift.
“Imagine working a minimum wage job that takes up 40 hours of your life every week – that means that one hour of your time costs as much as a coffee and a ftira. This was a comment from a worker who works more than 40 hours a week for €900 a month and has to pay €550 in rent,” he added.
The COO of Richmond Foundation, Daniela Calleja Bitar, suggested there is a global increase in mental health problems worldwide following the COVID pandemic, along with the resultant shift in workplace relations.
Malta Employers Association director-general Joseph Farrugia also referred to the “uncertainty” employees faced during COVID shutdowns.
Calleja Bitar suggested that organisations must “adapt to the new ways of working”, describing remote working as one example of a working climate in which employees require perks like being able to work remotely. Inflexible workplaces may add to the stress of an employee, leading to deteriorating mental health, she added.
Farrugia maintained that remote working may, in some types of employment sectors, create situations in which employees may have to “juggle between home duties simultaneously”, which could lead to “extended burnout” in some cases.
When asked about how the survey showed that more than half of the respondents involved said they work more than 40 hours a week, Calleja Bitar said one reason is that there is “a certain layer of society” that has to work more than 40 hours as their wages are too low to keep up with the soaring cost of living.
The chairperson of Alleanza Kontra l-Faqar suggested that this problem is further compounded by the lack of free time such working hours impose, with workers forced to carry out domestic activities like grocery shopping during their limited time off.
According to Meilaq, “these facts expose one fundamental contradication within the neoliberal capitalist model”.
“While humanity increases its productive output through scientific advances, working hours are increased instead of being decreased to allow for more time for family, culture, sport and education. This contradiction proves that the working class is being robbed of its rights more than ever by the owners of capital,” Meilaq said.
Questioned about why almost 75% of the survey respondents said that they did not disclose mental health and/or stress issues with their employers, the COO of Richmond Foundation argued that, while Malta has come a long way when it comes to the stigmatisation of mental health, much more needs to be done.
“We are faced daily with persons who will not disclose this ‘vulnerability’ to their employers as they believe they will be viewed as weak or they are afraid that there will be a consequence to that disclosure,” Calleja Bitar said.
The director-general of the employers’ association stated that stress and mental health issues in the workplace are two “different situations requiring a different approach”.
Stress, he said, is a matter that can be addressed through a re-organisation of the workplace, leave, or an increase in manpower, while mental health issues would require “professional intervention outside of the company” to be dealt with adequately.
Borg maintained that this fear of disclosure is generally rooted in the way relations between the employee and the employer are maintained – in the context of an underpaid worker, the situation becomes worse.
He added that an individual’s skill set and line of work make a huge difference in terms of pay, ability to leverage your worth against your employer’s needs, and seek support when necessary, further stating that in the case of workers whose stress primarily comes from low wages, chances are relations will already be strained, to begin with.
“Generally, in situations where wages are low or are stipulated by contracts which are illegal, there aren’t any structures in which a worker can express themselves and talk about issues with their employers, which only leaves room for private therapy,” Borg said.
“What worker with a low wage can afford a private therapist? The cycle becomes a vicious one, and if the person has other people in their lives, that frustration can easily affect others badly as well,” he added.