The psychological impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the mental health of many people globally, with apparent implications for employers worldwide, including South African businesses.
In a recent Lancet article, researchers found that one in five of those infected with COVID-19 is diagnosed with a first episode of anxiety, depression or insomnia within 90 days, twice as likely as for other groups in the same period.
Like in the rest of the world, October was mental health awareness month, and in South Africa, companies inundated me with requests to do webinars on the topic of mental illness. This was the first time since 1996, when I published my first article on workplace stress, that I experienced such urgency from Corporate South Africa, to learn more about mental health issues and how they might assist their employees.
It was clear from the conversations I had that employers now realize they will have to supplement their current practices around struggling employees and improve their abilities to support employees with mental health issues.
In the context of this reality, a Harvard Business Review article reiterated this point; “many companies will need to enhance current practices, supplementing external mental health programs with a greater capacity to deal with anxiety and uncertainty in-house. This does not mean attempting to take the place of trained mental health practitioners but rather building greater internal awareness of, sensitivity towards and ability to address employee concerns”.
My plea to South African companies was; Please start exploring ways to “supplement external mental health programs” as a matter of urgency. In my experience, Workplace Mental Health Programs and the concept of Workplace Mental Health Champions remains an alien one in South Africa. Whenever I refer to these programs, I am met with a puzzled look more often than not.
The cost of mental illness at work
Even before the arrival of COVID-19, I have been advocating for taking the conversation about mental illness into the workplace in my country, attempting to educate employers on how common “common mental health disorders” actually are.
My words seemed to fall on deaf ears for many years, when I tried to make, not only a moral argument for why employees should be concerned about the mental health of their employees but also a financial one. And, as mentioned earlier, at last, it would seem that my message is starting to make sense to South African employers in light of the Covid-19 pandemic and its psychological impact.
In stating my case, I usually start with statistics. Studies have shown that one in five people worldwide lives with an anxiety disorder and one in ten with depression. Then I challenge employers to consider the size of their company and to “do the math”; concluding that there is no getting away from the fact that a significant number of employees will have a common mental disorder at some point during their working life.
To strengthen the above argument, a study by a group of South African researchers found the lifetime prevalence of common mental disorders among first-year students at Stellenbosch University and the University of Cape Town in 2019 to be 38.5%. The logical conclusion being that this number will be higher once this cohort of students enters the workforce three or four years later.
In addition to the above, two other studies confront South Africa with the harsh reality of the cost of depression to employers and our country as a whole. Stander and his group found that 74% of study participants experienced cognitive symptoms at work, and 80% continued to work despite their depression.
Furthermore, a study by Evans-Lacko and Knapp from the London School of Economics found that 49% of employees with depression continued to work despite their depression. They calculated that the cost of presenteeism (working whilst unwell) to be 4,2% of South Africa’s GDP. That’s roughly R226 billion annually.
The following statistics should convince all employers to take the conversation about mental illness into the workplace and start educating their employees about mental illness. Consider that only half of the people with depression in a primary care setting, i.e. get the correct diagnosis, and only 37% of people with an anxiety disorder will get the right treatment and diagnosis for their anxiety disorder. This, even though 80-90% of people who receive treatment for depression will get better.
Workplace mental health programs
As stated earlier, Workplace Mental Health programs are still a somewhat alien concept to South African employers. They are invariably surprised to learn that there is, in fact, a good ROI on these programs. The Stevenson/Farmer review found the ROI on Workplace Mental Health programs to be £4.20 for £1spent.
The Deloitte insight report in 2019, The ROI in workplace mental health programs: Good for people, good for business – A blueprint for workplace mental health programs, which similarly found the ROI for investing in Workplace Metal Health Programs to be CAD 4.10 for every CAD 1 invested.
The Mental Health at Work Report sadly states that only 13% of managers in the UK have attended training that focused on mental health, a number which no doubt would be much less in South Africa. For that reason, I believe that South Africa desperately needs good, evidence-based workplace mental health programs and one such program, in my opinion, is the i-act for positive mental health and wellbeing program. We now offer the i-act for positive mental health and wellbeing program in South Africa.
A call to action for employers
COVID-19 has impacted individuals psychologically in ways we could never have imagined possible, and for employees and employers alike, we need to start being proactive. Therefore, my plea to employers is:
- Accept that the psychological impact of COVID-19 has been profound for many and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future.
- Start adopting a preventative, rather than a reactionary approach to mental illness at work.
- Start implementing Workplace Mental Health Programs, for example
- Start creating Mental Health Champions at work.
Employers in South Africa have a fantastic opportunity to start breaking down the stigma attached to mental illness by being pro-active and taking the conversation about mental illness into the workplace, using evidence-based Workplace Mental Health Programs.
About the author
Professor Stoffel Grobler is an Extraordinary Professor at the School of Health Systems and Public Health at the University of Pretoria and Associate Professor at Walter Sisulu University.