The Covid-19 pandemic continues to have a monumental effect on the mental health and wellbeing of people across the world. We are afraid of getting sick, afraid of infecting those around us, physically distanced and isolated from loved ones and support groups, worn out from a lack of resolution to the pandemic, and in many cases financially stressed and worried.

In the weeks following the announcement of the national lockdown a year ago, Lifeline South Africa recorded over 4,000 calls a day — the number they usually get in a week.

Calls to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag) more than doubled. Calls to Childline and gender-based violence centres also increased.

Across the globe, people with pre-existing mental health conditions continue to experience disruptions in their care. Agencies and networks are struggling under the increased caseload. And many countries are ill-equipped to deal with the increased burden.

In October 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) published the results of a survey on the impact of Covid-19 on mental, neurological and substance use services in 130 nations. Although 116 countries had made mental health and psychological support part of their national Covid-19 response plans, only 17% had committed additional funding for this.

Even before the pandemic, it was estimated that a billion people live with mental disorders. And although great strides have been made in understanding and treating mental illness, stigma, misunderstanding and ignorance still remain powerful obstacles to effectively battling this threat.

Despite its prevalence, we are shockingly unprepared to deal with mental illness in our lives. We all learnt our multiplication tables at school, but few of us learnt the importance of mindfulness, self-esteem, emotional regulation and self-care.

Self care isn't selfish
For some of us, work has become a particularly acute source of stress.Many industries have borne the brunt of the effects of global travel restrictions, and widespread economic contractions have meant widespread increases in unemployment.Even if your job is secure, working life has changed significantly. Remote work and working from home have introduced unexpected stresses and pressures, and we’re all worried about making the right financial choices in a radically uncertain environment.

We might be tempted to compartmentalise; to try to ignore the things that make us stressed and focus on the things we can control. But this is harder than it sounds.

The various components of our lives — physical, moral, spiritual, emotional and mental — are more interconnected than we usually give them credit for.

Studies have shown that the mental health of employees is a major determinant of their physical health; that poor mental health and workplace stress can contribute to a range of physical conditions — including hypertension, diabetes and cardiovascular conditions — and that poor mental health can lead to burn-out, “… seriously affecting [employees’] ability to contribute meaningfully in both their personal and professional lives”.

Mental health is vital to an individual’s overall wellbeing, and it can have an outsized impact on organisations as well. In the Netherlands, it has been estimated that more than half of work-related disabilities are the result of poor mental health, and in the UK, up to 40% of workplace absence is a result of mental illness.

The above initiatives align with our strategy of recognising effort and making people feel valued. We have to create opportunities for people to contribute to the good of the organisation — that is, we need to instil our purpose, which is to solve, within our company culture.

Organisations that don’t deal adequately with mental health and wellbeing have to cope with increased absenteeism, diminished productivity, high staff turnover and increased costs.

A 2020 Deloitte study found “there is more that employers can be doing to support mental health among the workforce. In particular, more can be done to tackle the stigma associated with mental health problems, increase awareness and provide adequate training for employees”.

The study also found there is an average return on investment of workplace mental health interventions of 5.2:1. There is a sound business case, as well as an inarguable ethical case, for investing time, energy and money into improving employee wellbeing.

Organisations that prioritise employee wellbeing and mental health, and offer creative and purposeful work and trusting work environments, will find it easier to attract and retain top talent; will reduce absenteeism and physical health risks, and will enhance productivity.

The types of interventions in Deloitte’s research that delivered the highest return on investment focused on screening individuals to identify those who are at high risk, providing support to them before their problems got worse, and tackling stigma and misinformation by ensuring employees knew about mental illness and avenues of support.

In EOH, as in many other organisations, there is a clear awareness that our people are our biggest asset. We have worked hard on our employee value proposition, instituting the appropriate frameworks and policies to make people feel like people and not like balance sheet line items.

We have to acknowledge people’s individuality, but without losing sight of the fact that they comprise a collective, with strong, altruistic relationships between its members. It has been heartening to see that in the midst of the initial uncertainty around the pandemic last year, our staff elected to take pay cuts rather than see colleagues retrenched.

We have put in place initiatives of care to make people feel valued, and during the pandemic we have prioritised the wellbeing of our people through several initiatives. One such measure is Wellness Wednesdays, whereby we engaged thought leaders who shared tools and techniques with our people to navigate through these extraordinary times.

As we have settled into something approaching a new normal, we have seen some distinct benefits of more flexible, remote working arrangements — notably the time saved by reduced commutes, the increase in time that staff are able to spend with families, the increased frequency of communication with managers and team members, and the focus on outcome-based solutions which promote innovation and accountability.

We have spent time understanding what people need in order to make them effective in their roles, and supporting them with the appropriate toolsets to drive ownership and accountability. We have several initiatives recognising effort and achievements.

We have spent a lot of time working on our sales and client propositions and what they mean for our people in driving delivery and accountability.

Finally, we have driven courage in a transparent and fair manner, have acted on all matters reported, and have protected individuals who look after the interests of peers and each other.

The above initiatives align with our strategy of recognising effort and making people feel valued. We have to create opportunities for people to contribute to the good of the organisation — that is, we need to instil our purpose, which is to solve, within our company culture.

In the UK, several employers and NGOs have signed up to the Mental Health at Work Commitment, a framework that builds on research to achieve better mental health outcomes for employees.

Developing or adapting such frameworks in your organisation is a good first step in assuring employees you’re committed to understanding mental health issues and to ensuring that these issues remain part of the organisational conversation.

If you or someone you know is suffering from stress or mental health issues, please contact one of the following helplines. You’ll speak to a trained counsellor and receive support and understanding.

South African Depression & Anxiety Group — SADAG
(0800) 12 13 14

Adcock Ingram Depression and Anxiety Helpline
(0800) 70 80 90

Lifeline South Africa (0861) 322 322

This article is an opinion piece written by Fatima Newman and first appeared in The Daily Maverick on 08 March 2021.