Managing mental health in the workplace

July 20, 2022

A dramatic increase in the incidence of mental health issues became a harsh reality during the Covid pandemic, particularly in sectors hardest hit such as healthcare, where workers were constantly on the frontline, and hospitality, which overnight experienced a total shutdown and huge job losses. This reality led to greater awareness and efforts to provide support and treatment, as well as destigmatise mental health disorders – which in turn has the potential to deliver a healthier and more productive workplace.

The World Health Organization (WHO) describes mental health as, “a state of mental well-being that enables people to cope with the stresses of life, realise their abilities, learn well and work well, and contribute to their community. It is an integral component of health and well-being that underpins our individual and collective abilities to make decisions, build relationships and shape the world we live in. Mental health is a basic human right. And it is crucial to personal, community and socio-economic development.”

In a recent Business Day Dialogues webinar in partnership with Accenture entitled ‘Mental health in the workplace – corporate South Africa’s hidden problem’, host Jeremy Maggs set the scene: “WHO suggests that in under 10 years, depression will become the globe’s biggest illness, while the World Economic Forum says mental disorders already result in lost productivity of around one trillion dollars each year.”

The webinar highlighted several studies that report an increase in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of losses related to Covid-19, which is exacerbated among healthcare workers as they daily came face-to-face with the pandemic, and hospitality workers as their livelihoods were abruptly halted. Added challenges in SA include loadshedding and an increased cost of living.

Stress, anxiety, depression, and the inability to cope with the speed of change were listed as some of the challenges faced by leadership and staff. These manifest as:

  • Increased sick leave and absenteeism
  • Exhaustion and daytime drowsiness from insomnia
  • Lack of concentration
  • Worsening of other medical conditions
  • Self-medication through legal and illegal substance use
  • More resignations

Organisations are urged to invest in well-being, both financially and in terms of time and effort, as any shift in corporate culture must start from the top. Vukani Mngxati, CEO of Accenture, said in the webinar: “We as leaders are also human beings – we’re not immune to the same issues. We think we are supposed to be the strong ones, showing guidance to our people, but being vulnerable, showing that we require help ourselves, is the first step.”

Management interventions

A review in SA Medical Journal in October 2020 on the mental health of healthcare workers during the pandemic found that businesses and their management are key role players in addressing this challenge, and that accessible, appropriate psychological support is needed. This finding and the suggested interventions apply to all organisations.

Available interventions include:

  • Be psychologically prepared: provide staff with access to training and support
  • Stay informed with scientific updates
  • Conduct a rapid needs assessment: allow workers to feel heard, foster team spirit, and enable managers to set priorities
  • Communicate clearly and regularly
  • Incorporate support in the daily routine: ask how team members are coping
  • Engage with the local community
  • Establish peer support networks: identify peer supporters in the organisation and facilitate training in mental health literacy and psychological first aid and encourage sharing of emotions and experiences
  • Establish referral pathways and human resource mechanisms
  • Recognise mental disturbances in co-workers and oneself
  • Train and support managers, supervisors, team leaders, and peer supporters in self-help skills, mindfulness-based training, mental health literacy, and psychological first-aid techniques

Intervention is as simple as making locally relevant educational flyers available on topics such as mental health, substance abuse, self-awareness strategies, and self-help tips, destigmatising the act of seeking help and providing information on how to access resources such as counselling and medication.
Skilled leadership and effective communication remain pivotal, and psychological support and training of managers should be prioritised, the report finds.

To see the full webinar on YouTube, click here.

Useful contacts
If you or someone you know of it struggling with their mental health, here is a list of organisations who may be able to help:

South African Depression & Anxiety Group (SADAG): (0800) 12 13 14 / (011) 234 4837
Adcock Ingram Depression and Anxiety Helpline: (0800) 70 80 90
Lifeline South Africa: (0861) 322 322