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Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

By some measures South Africans are the second most stressed employees in the world. Lump the impact of Covid-19 on top of this and it’s easy to see why our country is facing a mental health crisis.

Mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety cost the economy more than R200bn a year through people missing work and “presenteeism”, a situation in which employees are at work but perform at lower levels, primarily as a result of mental ill health.

SA is a challenging place to work and live in. You have the persistent threat of crime, the constant negative news cycle, high levels of unemployment and social comparisons due to excessive use of social media. Then you have the problem of retrenchments, where employees are either afraid of being retrenched or harbour guilt about not having lost their jobs when others did. 

In addition to these stresses, some people work in environments where there is stigma attached to self-care practices such as regularly taking leave from work, which makes it difficult for people to unplug from the now common habit of constant connectivity.

Becoming inured to this environment leads to excessive stress and high anxiety, which can directly cause depression. One of the hallmarks of depression, high anxiety and excessive stress is that, because of the stigma attached to talking about them openly, people often feel alone and self-isolated. This becomes a vicious circle as sufferers begin to feel as though they are alone, misunderstood, and don’t matter to others, which only heightens their feelings of depression.

One of the best methods of helping someone struggling with their mental health is to create open and safe spaces for people to discuss their emotional states without the fear of judgment. A strong example of this in the workplace is the provision of employee assistance and wellness programmes that cover a range of psychosocial needs, grant employee access to professional mental health practitioners and equip employees with a range of tools to help them better understand their overall health, defined by the World Health Organization as the presence of physical, mental, and social wellbeing and not just the absence of disease or infirmity.

Poor financial health can feel like an unending weight on one’s shoulders. Being in a constant state of high stress and anxiety about finances increases the circulation of chemicals such as cortisol and adrenaline in the body that, over time, weaken the body’s immune system and make us more susceptible to both physical and mental illness.

With money playing a central role in our ability to function well in society, being in poor financial health, primarily due to overindebtedness, is one of the main stressors South Africans face today. According to the National Credit Regulator just more than 10-million (38.4%) of SA’s 26-million credit active consumers fall into this category. Many academic studies have established a direct link between mental ill health such as depression and consumer overindebtedness.

One of the difficulties in dealing with depression, high anxiety and stress is that the short-term coping mechanisms many adopt are bad for us. These can come in the form of excessive drinking and smoking, inadequate sleep, poor eating habits, a lack of exercise, gambling and excessive social media use.

On an individual level, having firm boundaries, regular exercise, practising mindfulness, getting adequate sleep and adopting better eating habits are a good place to start in trying to alleviate mental ill health. More importantly, it is crucial that people seek professional help through their employers or through free services provided by organisations such as the SA Depression & Anxiety Group. Also, seeking help from financial advisers and coaches to improve financial health goes a long way to reducing the burden of financial stress.

On a broader scale, we must make it safe for people to be vulnerable and speak about their emotions, both at the workplace and at home. If we destigmatise mental ill health we will begin to see better mental health-seeking behaviours.

• Dr Magwegwe is corporate wellness executive at Sanlam Health Solutions.

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