Picture: 123RF/DMITRII SHIRONOSOV
Picture: 123RF/DMITRII SHIRONOSOV

Business for SA (B4SA) has issued a stark warning about the mental health effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, saying the enormous stress and anxiety facing employers and the workforce will be felt for years to come.

SA is entering its seventh week of a stringent national lockdown, which has seen the government impose sweeping restrictions on trade, travel and social interaction. Earlier this week, B4SA painted a bleak picture of the economic outlook for SA, projecting GDP could fall between 10.3% and 16.7% in 2020.

By Wednesday evening, SA’s tally of confirmed Covid-19 cases stood at 7,808, with 153 deaths. The government eased some restrictions on May 1, but schools, universities and many businesses remain closed; a curfew has been imposed; and most people remain confined to their homes. 

“We are justifiably focused on the here and now of the pandemic, but I believe there is a looming, second order mental health crisis that is only beginning to emerge,” said B4SA’s public outreach workstream head Judy Nwokedi, who is also COO of Tourvest.  

B4SA is a broad coalition of business organisations working closely with the government on SA’s response to Covid-19. On Thursday it released guidelines for mental health and the workplace.

A recent US survey published in the Harvard Business Review found that, since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, 75% of people reported feeling more socially isolated; 67% were more stressed; and 53% felt more drained and exhausted, she said.

Covid-19 has spread rapidly around the world since it first emerged in China late last year. By Thursday, more than 3.77-million people were reported to have been infected, with 264,000 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins University tracker.

The SA Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag) said the volume of calls to its helpline has doubled since the start of the lockdown, to between 1,200 and 1,400 calls a day.

The top five reasons for contacting the non-profit Sadag were anxiety and panic; depression; financial stress and problems accessing government support; family conflict and violence; and suicidal feelings, it said.

If the mental health effects of the economic and societal disruption triggered by Covid-19 are not proactively managed by employers, they are likely to see an increase in depression and absenteeism among their staff, said Psychological Society of SA president Garth Stevens.

He warned that technology has the potential to escalate stress levels for people working from home, because it means is was no clearly defined end to the work day.

Women are particularly vulnerable, he said, as they bear the brunt of childcare, domestic work and are at increased risk of gender-based violence during the lockdown.

kahnt@businesslive.co.za