A Second Pandemic Of Mental Illness Looms In The Workplace

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After two years of Covid-19 lockdown, as employees shift from remote working back to office work, the challenge for business now is not only adapting to changes in technology and new modes of working, but to guard against a second pandemic of mental illness.


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After two years of Covid-19 lockdown, as employees shift from remote working back to office work, the challenge for business now is not only adapting to changes in technology and new modes of working, but to guard against a second pandemic of mental illness.

Two years ago, on the morning of Friday, 27 March 2020, South Africans woke up to Day 1 of a drastic, pandemic-induced lockdown – a “new normal” of social and physical isolation and juggling remote working with supervising home schooling and queueing for basic necessities.

After 730 days of lockdown, navigating the aftermath of Covid-19 is “one of the biggest business challenges of our time,” says Prof Renata Schoeman, head of the MBA Healthcare Leadership programme at Stellenbosch University Business School.

“Employees have had to continuously adapt to shifting versions of ‘the new normal’, with the mental health risks of isolation and remote working now replaced by new stress factors in the return to workplaces. Creating psychologically safe workplaces needs to be part of the business recovery strategy post Covid-19,” she said.

The mental health impact of the pandemic and lockdown was seen almost immediately, with the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) reporting[i] that calls to their helpline doubled overnight at the beginning of lockdown, to 1 200 per day, rising to over 2 200 daily by September 2021.

More than a third (35%) of South African employees experienced high levels of stress-related physical ill health symptoms such as headaches, nausea, sleeping and eating problems, palpitations, and muscle aches and pains during lockdown.[ii] Half had high levels of worries about the future, and 46% were at risk of developing depression and anxiety disorders.

South Africa has the lowest Mental Health Quotient (MHQ), a measure of mental wellbeing, of 34 countries in the recently released [15 March 2021] Mental State of the World Report 2021.[iii] South Africa’s MHQ score of 46 was a decrease of 3 percentage points from 2020. The report found a significant link between declining MHQ scores from 2019 to 2021 and the stringent Covid-19 regulations introduced from 2020 across the world.

The report also showed that South Africa had the highest percentage, 36%, of people struggling or in mental distress, up 8 percentage points from 2020.

Prof Schoeman said that while the lockdown had a negative impact on employees’ mental health, there had also been positive lifestyle changes and business should consider how to incorporate these into the post-Covid workplace.

Factors such as isolation and losses on many fronts – losses of income, social support networks, physical and health losses, losses of loved ones as well as the broader social and economic losses in the country – are all factors which have led to the increase in mental health challenges, she said. “Working from home and social distancing has also caused losses in social skills, the ability to communicate, collaborate, resolve conflicts; and a lost sense of belonging and feeling connected to one’s team and workplace.

“On the positive side, people have been able to spend more time with family, exercising and developing new hobbies, and less time commuting. All of these are good mental health habits, which need to be encouraged to continue.

“Employees have been able to make their own choices about flexibility in working hours and focus on output rather than hours put in – and companies need to look at how to incorporate these positives into a return to work strategy,” she said.

Prof Schoeman recommended a number of approaches for a return-to-work strategy that protects and promotes good mental health for employees:

  • Many employees have re-evaluated their work and life and priorities, and their expectations of employers and workplaces. Supporting flexible and hybrid work scheduling that combines on-site and remote working, and allows employees to balance their life and family priorities with work, should be built into the post-Covid workplace as a means to reduce the stress of returning to work.
  • While people worked from home, managers had to learn how to focus on output rather than hours spent in the office as a measure of performance and productivity. This has had a positive impact on employees’ attitudes to work, and continuing this approach would contribute positively to employee mental health.
  • Open communication, transparency, active feedback and listening to complaints and concerns, watching out for “hot spots” of tension and interpersonal conflict and dealing decisively with them, all contribute to a healthy work environment.
  • Employees fear for their safety and protection from catching Covid-19. Employers can reduce this stress by ensuring that hygiene protocols are in place and the work environment facilitates employees’ personal safety.

“Most importantly, employers need to act decisively to reduce the stigma around mental health issues and ensure that health policies and practices are inclusive and encourage employees to be open about their challenges in a safe and transparent way,” Prof Schoeman said.

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