Health economists estimate that unaddressed mental health conditions cost the South African economy R161 billion per year due to lost days of work, presenteeism (being at work but unwell), and premature mortality.
In the Mental State of the World 2022 report, South Africa scored the lowest average on the mental health wellbeing scale, measured across 34 countries from around the world, and the World Mental Health Report 2022 estimated the rise in both anxiety and depressive disorders at more than 25% during the first year of the pandemic.
Today, three years post-COVID 19, burnout, anxiety and depression are at a record high creating a very stressed, anxious and mentally unwell workforce with a detrimental impact on companies bottom line.
During Corporate Mental Health Week (4-8 July 2023) Prof Renata Schoeman, Head of Healthcare Leadership at Stellenbosch Business School, says that although COVID-19 has raised the need amongst organisations to protect their employees’ mental health and well-being, very few are succeeding in making a concerted and relevant effort as part of their attraction and retention programs.
“Employees are seeking workplace environments where management cares as much about their productivity as they do about their emotional well-being. Emotionally well-supported employees are happier, less stressed and anxious, more creative, productive and have higher levels of job satisfaction which leads to low staff turn-overs and less conflict.”
“The pandemic forced us all to adapt to working from home overnight and left hybrid working in its wake as a new model for doing business. Combining both working remotely and in-office has given rise to several benefits but also risks to mental health. If the risks are left unaddressed it could have serious consequences for organisations if they don’t actively adapt their Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) to support their workforce through these changing times.”
Hybrid work provides flexibility with more freedom for employees to manage their work and personal schedules, and less time spent in traffic, reducing stress levels and enhancing work-life balance - essential components of maintaining good mental health.
However, Prof Schoeman says that the risks of hybrid working, if not proactively managed well by organisations, outways the positive impact.
“Hybrid working blurs the boundaries between the office and one’s personal life. It can become a daily challenge for employees to disconnect and recharge and separate work-related stressors from personal time, leading to burnout especially if the organisation’s culture promotes being ‘always on’, expecting employees to always be available and responsive to work demands.”
“Working remotely can also lead to social isolation and reduced interpersonal connections, causing a disconnection from colleagues, increased stress levels and poor decision making. It can jeopardise career progression in that promotions are not only evaluated based on work performance but also their people and management skills, how they collaborate within a team, and their attitudes and values – character traits that are difficult to judge remotely, slowing down and reducing growth opportunities.”
Prof Schoeman says with hybrid work models likely to continue and evolve, organisations need to re-evaluate their EAPs and proactively prioritise mental health support to include hybrid working environments to reduce the impact and prevalence of mental health illnesses.
“EAPs have certainly come a long way in the past years where organisations have realised that a healthy workforce equals a healthy company. However, most programmes have been designed as a short-term measure to deal with issues that have already occurred and are largely reactive responses to an individual’s wellbeing.
“Organisations need to adapt their EAPs service with additional focus on preventative education, changing the company culture to avoid burnout and adopt a holistic approach to wellbeing that equips employees to manage the challenges of the new ways of working post the pandemic.”
In addition to the wellness and financial support offered EPAs should include the following:
Changing the organisation culture to promote work/life balance
Expanding mental health benefits
Access to health tech apps
Online therapy and remote mental health appointments
Live, instructor-led skills training
Collaborative care models
Lead by example
Include in-person gatherings such as team-building and regular face-to-face interactions and time in the office
Guarantee anonymity and confidentiality
Mental health illness has significant personal, organisational and societal costs, and unless organisations make mental health issues a strategic priority, these costs are set to increase. Prevention is the best strategy to follow and avoids the downward spiral into potential disability, and promoted a happier, healthier society.