The after effects of Covid-19 have been disastrous to say the least. Not only did it destroy our physical health and tear apart families, it has also negatively affected economic activity, resulting in huge financial burdens. Our workforce and communities are left feeling mentally exhausted and physically burnt out.
South Africa finds itself in the darkest of days where unemployment has reached unprecedented levels, where grief is at every corner, poverty has reached alarming levels, and where domestic abuse and gender-based violence may be lurking.
We see colleagues at work behaving as normal but we may be unaware of what they have to deal with at home, their financial difficulties, whether they may possibly be a victim of abuse, or have been diagnosed with a mental illness or struggling to cope mentally. We may be clueless if or when our colleague may be on the brink of taking their own life.
Mental health matters
We all need to start prioritising our mental health and wellbeing. This is just as important as having an income. Friendships with colleagues can help to some extent but we also need a realistic work-life balance not only for ourselves but for the sake of our families.
Covid-19 coupled with workplace challenges can be the major reason behind depression and mental health illnesses, especially for those who work on the frontline. In this regard, employers should make a positive and significant difference by prioritising mental health in the workplace. This will have a positive spin-off for employers in improving productivity and reducing costs related to absenteeism, turnover and medical claims.
In fact, prioritising mental health is a win-win for everyone as it will improve communication, boost morale and reduce unnecessary stress.
What can employers do
A good starting point would be to create a safe work space with programmes and policies that promote and protect mental health. Occupational health legislation (OHS Act of 1993) mandates employers to create a healthy and safe work environment conducive for everyone to work in. Therefore, employers have the power to control psychosocial risk factors like long working hours, rapid changes within the organisation, tight deadlines, and job insecurity.
Through mental health programmes, employers can reduce heavy workloads, enforce a zero-tolerance approach to harassment and discrimination, allow flexibility to deal with work-life conflict, and provide supervisory and co-worker support. Addressing mental health problems in the workplace should be done regardless of the cause, and implementing an open-door policy is a step in the right direction. It’s important that employers make available staff support services, particularly mental health programmes that are without victimisation and stigma.
There are several simple measures like establishing programs for career development that go a long way in workers feeling appreciated for the contributions they make in a workplace. So companies should look at all aspects of involving employees in decision-making so that all staff feel valued, irrespective of their level of education.
We need to do more
We all can play a part in helping each other emotionally – whether the issues emanate from the workplace or the community. This can be achieved through ubuntu, kindness, working together and compassion. If Covid-19 has taught us one thing, it’s that life is too short. Let’s help one another through this journey to create healthier, safer workplaces and communities for all.
By Dr Spo Kgalamono, Executive Director of the National Institute for Occupational Health (NIOH)