Promote mental health and it will pay dividends
Employers who invest in stress-relief measures in the workplace reap returns in terms of productivity, writes Grace Khoza
Stress, depression, generalised anxiety disorder, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are all mental health disorders that may affect people in the workplace.
Statistics often quoted in World Health Organisation (WHO) research prove that higher levels of illness-leave, grievances, employee relations issues, loss of management time, higher illness-pay liabilities and health premiums, legal claims and reputational damage reflect a lack of understanding of such issues and how their effect on an individual can be detrimental in the workplace.
According to the WHO, with roughly 30% of the South African population battling a mental disorder at some time, 76% to 85% of people with severe mental disorders receive no treatment.
There are only 1.2 psychiatrists for every 100,000 people in SA, and fewer than 400 psychiatrists practise in the private healthcare sector, which serves nearly 9-million people.
This backlog in care has an obvious effect on the workplace, and places demands on employers to understand and manage issues related to the mental health of staff.
RESEARCH SUPPORTS THE FACT THAT WHEN PEOPLE RECEIVE CARE THEY NEED, THEY ARE HEALTHIER AND MORE PRODUCTIVE.
Health and safety legislation imposes a general duty on employers to ensure the health, safety and welfare at work of their employees including requirements to assess health and safety risks such as mental health-related illnesses.
Employers have a duty of care to their staff. So they have to deal with any work-related stress and have to be able to show that they are helping their employees to deal with any work-related issues causing stress or anxiety.
Psychologists say that as with physical disorders, mental disorders take many forms and express themselves at work in many different ways. Certain employees may become withdrawn, or not come to work when they are not coping.
Others can become hostile or act out. Some employees may have trouble remembering. Others, who previously had been well mannered, may say inappropriate things to colleagues or clients.
Outward signs of problems may include a poor relationship with colleagues, indecisiveness, an inability to delegate or manage and a general deterioration in performance.
Stress-related problems can be caused by a wide variety of factors both inside and outside the workplace.
Organisational pressures that contribute to stress could include bullying and harassment, lack of training, poor and inconsistent management, irregular and long hours, unreasonable deadlines and changes in technology.
Experience shows that employers who have clear policies on dealing with mental health problems and are creative in their approach to handling such situations get their struggling employees back to work sooner.
Unfortunately, there are employers who underestimate the extent of suffering from mental health disorders and often lack effective procedures to identify and manage mental health.
But many employers have developed employee assistance programmes (EAPs) as confidential resources for employees dealing with personal or professional challenges. The EAPs must also include support and services tailored to a manager’s distinct needs including dealing with the emotional needs of employees and workplace mental health issues.
It is important to support an environment that encourages employees to take care of their physical and mental health.
Research supports the fact that when people receive the care they need, they are healthier and more productive — and employers realise a good return on their healthcare investment.
With so many people in SA’s workforce needing mental health services at some point, businesses should rethink mental health and view it as they do physical health, education, childcare and other support functions that maximise worker productivity.
The key is to have an adequate policy dealing with these issues and supported by senior management who appreciate that pressure should be stimulating and not stressful.
This can include free health checks, gym membership, relaxation classes, individual counselling and psychotherapy, as well as access to confidential counselling — both for work-and nonwork problems.
Healthcare providers should also devise procedures to deal with and manage issues around mental health in the workplace.
Medscheme has developed a mental health programme aimed at collaboration between general practitioners, specialists and auxiliary caregivers, and the introduction of a care manager to deliver good quality mental health patient-centred care.
All employers should realise that if sufficient numbers of staff are affected by stress, depression or anxiety the problem can become a serious organisational one, manifesting as absenteeism, reduced productivity, increased staff turnover and customer complaints.
More seriously, continued stress can result in dangerous consequences such as mental health problems.
It is vital that employers always encourage employees to seek help as soon as possible.
Treating mental illness as something disconnected from the workplace is a mistake because untreated or under-treated mental illness has serious ramifications.
• Khoza is the executive director for group marketing and corporate affairs at the AfroCentric Group, owners of Medscheme and other health companies.