MARION BORCHERDS: Poor mental health is the post-Covid pandemic
Study finds that 33% of respondents depressed, 45% afraid and 29% lonely
Declining mental health is the pandemic no-one expected after Covid, yet it has become clear that this is the sad reality we face.
Before the pandemic, mental health was already neglected, with only 5% of the health budget being allocated to this sector. Now an even a sadder tale is being told if the statistics are anything to go by.
The mental health of the younger generation has reportedly plummeted, with vulnerable groups being worst off. It is no wonder that in certain quarters the neglect of mental health is being labelled a violation of human rights, with only 27% of people with mental disorders in SA receiving treatment, only 50% of hospitals having psychiatrists, 30% of hospitals not having a psychologist and SA hitting rock bottom on the Global Health Index for Mental Health.
The Covid-19 pandemic has amplified the mental health gap, with a recent study conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council reporting that 33% of respondents were depressed, 45% were afraid and 29% experienced loneliness, physical distancing and staying at home with little social interaction. Quite widely reported on was the fact that gender-based violence (GBV) incidents increased over the Covid-19 period, with more calls coming in to hotlines during the hard lockdowns. It has also become clear that at least 30% of individuals dealing with long Covid are also dealing with mental health comorbidities.
Many workplaces responded to the Covid-19 pandemic by strengthening health and safety protocols, strengthening workplace wellness programmes, implementing more platforms for accessing counselling services, and even expanding education, awareness and training to families and communities. Various behaviour-change campaigns were introduced to employees and their families, with the understanding that employees’ health and safety could be negatively affected by families if the latter were not included in the overall campaigns.
Workplaces also started introducing extreme changes from business as usual and designing new ways of work. The mental health response once again seemed to fall behind the other programmes.
Several factors are contributing to the increasing prevalence of mental health disorders after Covid. Many people are dealing with grief and trauma as they suffer the aftermath of having lost loved ones. Employees are anxious and afraid that either they or their families could contract the virus as they return to work. The pandemic has also left a devastating trail of economic hardship, income precariousness and unemployment.
Remote working, which quickly became a reality, has also produced serious consequences related to mental health, stress and burnout. The effect of “always being on” and the subsequent cognitive overload and fatigue have spawned movements such as “the right to disconnect”, with some countries considering legislation in this regard.
Concepts such as techno-stress and debates on work-life balance and the right to privacy started taking centre stage as it became clear that workplaces needed to evolve and adopt new ways of work.
Remote working, which quickly became a reality, has also produced serious consequences related to mental health, stress and burnout
One of the serious blights of our time is workplace bullying, and Covid-19 and remote work provided an environment for this phenomenon to shape-shift to a different guise where cyberbullying, online victimisation and disrespect and incivility also became prevalent, perhaps due to the perceived anonymity provided by online platforms.
Leadership challenges were abundant during the hard lockdowns as managers struggled to find more compassionate ways to lead teams that were being affected by the pandemic, or whose family and friends were being struck down.
They had to manage teams dealing with a lack of cohesion and poor morale. Managing remote teams and finding new ways of connecting and inspiring teams became the new leadership dilemma. Simultaneously, they had to deal with their own health and, it soon became clear, their own mental health challenges, as they continued to contain crises for which many had not received training.
Many blue-collar workers kept the economy going as they were unable to work remotely, even during hard lockdowns. They are the heroes of this piece. However, there has been little research on their mental health, though one study concluded that their concerns are mainly about pay issues and support.
Regulatory and policy issues that should be considered regarding mental health should be aimed at integrated approaches that consider complex and multidimensional drivers, as this approach is most likely to be effective at navigating changes in work and worker safety, health, wellbeing and mental health.
Issues of importance include:
- Privacy. Will remote workers be managed by algorithms, and what are the implications for privacy?
- The right to disconnect and the regulation of work-life balance.
- The global movement towards a four-day working week and what this would mean in the SA context with its strict labour and employment regulations.
- How do we make workplaces important engines of wellbeing for workers, their families and communities?
- How do we provide psychologically safe work spaces for employees?
- New leadership paradigms that are rooted in compassion.
- Policies and practices to increase connectedness and a sense of belonging for workers.
- Frequent, honest communication and dialogue to promote mental health.
- Early recognition of mental illness and support.
- Addressing issues of stigma.
- Mental health literacy. Knowledge and awareness on mental health issues and substance abuse.
It is apparent that the country’s mental health burden has been amplified by the Covid-19 pandemic, and that workplaces could provide safe spaces to provide meaningful programmes and interventions. The government and its social partners have an important role to play as we pave the way for better mental health for all citizens and workers. We need to pay more attention to the psyche of our nation.
• Dr Borcherds is executive manager: health & awareness at Transnet. This article summarises her address at the 27th annual National Economic Development and Labour Council summit held in September.
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