The global pandemic has left no person untouched, regardless of their nationality, status, race or gender. It has forced people to take stock of many aspects of their lives. Aside from its impact on physical health, many studies have been carried out looking into the impact of COVID-19 on mental health and the expert consensus is that while COVID-19 may be in a far less damaging phase now, the mental health impact of COVID-19 could be felt by many for years to come.
“‘Mental health’ refers to cognitive, behavioural and emotional wellbeing that affects how people think, feel and behave”
What is mental health?
‘Mental health’ refers to cognitive, behavioural and emotional wellbeing that affects how people think, feel and behave. A state of mental wellbeing enables people to cope with the stresses of life, exercise their abilities, learn and work well, and contribute to their personal and workplace communities. Looking after mental health can preserve a person’s ability to fully live life and experience joy. Achieving wellbeing includes balancing life’s activities and responsibilities, as well as attaining a good measure of psychological resilience.
Employees are still recovering from the effects of COVID-19 on mental health
The World Health Organisation estimates that, globally, depression is the leading cause of disability. Numerous research studies have proven that the significant rise in mental health issues since early 2020 is linked to the COVID-19 pandemic. A brief published in May 2021 by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), of which South Africa is a member, states:
“The COVID-19 crisis has heightened the risk factors generally associated with poor mental health – financial insecurity, unemployment, fear – while protective factors – social connection, employment and educational engagement, access to physical exercise, daily routine, access to health services – fell dramatically.”
In a recent pilot study on employee trauma, with the results published in September 2021, a South African management and technology consulting firm, IQbusiness, found that:
- over 66% of office-based employees they surveyed are experiencing extreme stress, anxiety and depression;
- 92% are concerned by the state of South Africa’s economy and the possible implications it would have for themselves and their loved ones;
- 54% reported that they were experiencing financial strain;
- over 69% were mentally affected by the state of poverty on the news and around them.
Employers must support employee mental health, or run the risk of a less productive workforce
According to the WHO, approximately 350 million people (including about 27% of South Africans) suffer from mental health issues. It is also estimated that employee absenteeism on account of depression costs the South African economy approximately R19 billion a year. With mental health challenges being so prevalent among employees across all organisational levels, education and transparency are critical to helping employees understand mental illness and feel comfortable seeking help to overcome issues as they arise.
“According to the WHO, approximately 350 million people (including about 27% of South Africans) suffer from mental health issues.”
Tips for supporting employee mental health
As employers continue to ensure safe post-COVID-19 workplaces, supporting employees’ mental health is as critical as creating a safe physical environment. In order to nurture a mentally healthy workplace, it is important for employers to take stock of their employees’ current state of mind, then plan and put a comprehensive strategy into play to help their people stay well at work. This includes tackling the root causes of any work-related mental health issues as well as offering support to people who are experiencing a mental health problem.
- Understand how mental health impacts employees
Poor mental health contributes to presenteeism (employees who are at work but not engaged) and absenteeism (employees missing days of work). It may adversely impact multiple areas of employee-performance and productivity, affecting focus and decision making, time management, completing physical tasks, social interaction and communication.
- Train the organisation’s leaders to recognise signs of mental ill-health
Supervisors and managers can play a critical role in interfacing and communicating with employees, and providing stability. It is important for managers to be trained to recognise the signs of emotional distress and provided with the tools to be better invested in this aspect of their employees’ wellbeing.
Many helpful measures are easy and inexpensive, but they do take managers being aware and in touch with employees. Regular catch ups, flexible working hours, promoting work/life integration and encouraging peer support can make a meaningful difference to all employees, whether or not they have a mental health problem.
“Many employers see the benefit of providing an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), which supports employees’ mental and emotional quality of life…”
- Establish an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP)
Many employers see the benefit of providing an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), which supports employees’ mental and emotional quality of life, both at home and in the workplace. EAPs help employees address a range issues that include:
- Marital problems
- Substance abuse
- Mental health disorders or imbalances
- Financial struggles
- Family issues
- Emotional problems
- Promote all-round wellbeing
- Make it a priority: Employees need to know that their wellbeing is seen as important. This means leaders should create an environment that truly supports employee wellness initiatives. They also need to model healthy behaviour and set aside time for employee well-being activities.
- Track goals: Progress is motivating. Encourage employees to set and track their goals and be sure to support them along the way and keep everyone accountable.
- Reward reaching healthy goals: Recognise and reward employees for the right behaviour. Ask your employees what motivates them as sought-after incentives differ from person to person. Rewards could range from earning wellbeing hours that result in time off, to gifting employees with pamper hampers or family fun.
- Photo by Maksim Goncharenok