Building a Robust Mental Health Policy for Workplaces in the Philippines in a COVID-19 World

by Joseph Anthony P. Lopez , Ruth Nichole C. Ureta and Rashel Ann C Pomoy
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected more than 2 million people and killed over 150,000 worldwide as of the time of this writing, according to the World Health Organization. As the world shifted during the last months, businesses are scrambling to mitigate losses and return to normalcy. Understandably, businesses tend to focus on keeping their workers physically healthy to become productive at work, including supporting social distancing with the technology needed to work from home, to new hygiene standards for the workers and workplaces, to introducing COVID-19 responsive leave benefits.
However, businesses should not ignore an issue of paramount importance for sustained success throughout this crisis and beyond: the mental health of their workers. Employers must recognize that they are dependent on the agility, adaptive capacity and emotional well-being of their people, which require them to stay healthy not just physically, but also emotionally.
Workforce emotional well-being was already a rising concern prior to the pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought this need into sharper focus due to the uncertainty and multi-pronged threat it has created. In an article of the Lancet Psychiatry journal, researchers warned that a rise of anxiety and coping mechanisms are expected during the pandemic, but that there is also the risk that the numbers of people with anxiety, depression, or those engaging in harmful behaviors like self-harm could increase, unless the necessary safeguards are in place.
Mandated Workplace Mental Health Policy and Program
Employers in the Philippines no longer have a choice about whether or not to advocate for mental health of their employees. The Mental Health Law (Republic Act No. 11036) and its Implementing Rules and Regulations mandate that employers “shall develop appropriate policies and programs on mental health in the workplace designed to raise awareness on mental health issues, correct stigma and discrimination associated with mental health condition, identify and provide support for individuals at risk, and facilitate access of individuals with mental health conditions to treatment and psychosocial support.”
In fact, in February 2020, even before COVID-19 was declared to be a global pandemic by the World Health Organization, and even before the work environment was ruptured into isolationist work from home policies, the Philippine Department of Labor and Employment (“DOLE”) already issued Department Order No. 208 (“D.O. 208”) which set out the guidelines for the implementation of mental health policies and programs for the private sector.
D.O. 208 obligates all workplaces to formulate a Mental Health Policy and Program which will: (1) Raise awareness, prevent stigma and discrimination, provide support to workers who are at risk and/or with mental health condition and facilitate access to medical health services; (2) Promote workers’ well-being towards healthy and productive lives; and (3) Be jointly prepared by management and workers’ representatives and be made an integral part of the company’s occupational safety and health policies and program. In other words, mental health of employees was already in the forefront of the concern of employers even before the anticipated increase in mental stress the pandemic would cause.
In formulating the employer’s Mental Health Policy and Program, the DOLE recommends that employers seek assistance from the DOLE, the Department of Health (“DOH”) and from any organization rendering mental health services, such as the Psychological Association of the Philippines, Philippine Psychiatric Association, Philippine Neurological Association, Philippine Guidance and Counselling Organization, and the Philippine Mental Health Association.
Contents of the Mental Health Policy and Program
A robust Mental Health Policy and Program must contain these essential components: (a) advocacy, information, education and training; (b) promotion and enhancement of workers’ well-being; (c) social policy; (d) treatment, rehabilitation and referral system; and (e) benefits and compensation specifically relating to mental well-being. It is also mandated that workers be provided with basic information and education on mental health, which includes modules on: understanding mental health and its impact in the workplace and the workforce, identification and management of mental health problems in the workplace, and confidentiality of all information or medical records of a worker with mental health condition. 
It is also necessary for employers to: (a) provide psychosocial support in management of disaster and extreme life events;  (b) increasing workers’ awareness on mental health and other common conditions such as depression, anxiety and substance abuse, promotion of healthy lifestyle and work-life balance; (c) identify and manage work-related stress and stressors; (d) effectively manage of changes in the work organization, including addressing burnout and review of workplace; (e) provide a employees’ achievements and efforts recognition program; (f) provide avenues in order for managers and human resource personnel to build capacity to identify and manage of workers with mental health problems; and (g) provide other programs necessary to promote and sustain the mental well-being of the workers. Employers are also obliged to provide the necessary training to their personnel who will develop, implement and monitor the Mental Health Policy and Program.
Non-Discrimination of Employees with Mental Health Conditions
Employers are also mandated prevent discriminatory acts against employees with mental health conditions. Employers are mandated to allow employees to resume work while undergoing treatment for a mental condition when an occupational health physician provides a certification that: (a) an employee is fit to work; and (b) the employees’ current treatment will not cause unsafe conditions for the employee and/or for other workers.
Moreover, an employee cannot be terminated from work on the basis of actual, perceived or suspected mental health condition. Instead, the only time an employer may terminate an employee on grounds of mental health issues is when: (a) the condition progresses to such severity that it affects the employee’s own safety or that of other employees and the work performance or productivity of the employee; and (b) this must be certified by a competent public health authority with expertise on mental health.
Reasonable Accommodation to Employees with Mental Health Conditions
Employers must also provide reasonable accommodation for their workers with metal health conditions, and in order for this to be given, under D.O. 208, employees are also encouraged to disclose their medical and mental health conditions to their employers. These accommodations include: (a) flexible work arrangements; (b) reduction of work load; (c) rescheduling of work hours; (d) arrangements for employees to return to work; and € other arrangements recommended by mental health professionals seeing the employee. Whatever the arrangement is, it must be explained to the affected employee, preferably in the presence of a family member.
Treatment, Rehabilitation and Referral System
The DOLE mandates that workers with mental health conditions shall be referred to a DOH-licensed/accredited/recognized mental health facility or mental health service providers for appropriate management. As support to the worker with mental health conditions, the employer is required to charge the absence of the employee against leave credits, if applicable; and it is only when the leave credits of the employee have been exhausted that the employer may consider the medical leave to be without pay.
Penalty for Non-Compliance
Under D.O. 208, the Mental Health Policy and Program of the employer is considered part of the Occupational Safety and Health (“OSH”) requirements under the Republic Act No. 11058. In fact, the Mental Health Policy and Program should be included in the OSHS Manual which must be submitted by the employers to the DOLE. Any violation thereof which merits a penalty of PhP40,000.00 (~USD790) per day of violation until full compliance.
The Philippine government’s efforts to underscore mental wellbeing have now permeated the workplace. D.O. 208 envisions a robust structure in every workplace to secure the mental health of employees. Employers in the Philippines must now heed the call and come up with their respective Mental Health Policies and Programs as an integral part of their response to the Covid-19 pandemic.  
This article is intended for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. 
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