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Whiter workplace wellness?

- Lem Chetty

Mental health is set to become a global crisis by 2030. Creating a caring, nurturing culture in your workplace can save employers and employees a lot of stress.

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The World Health Organization (WHO) predicts that mental health will be the single largest global crisis we will face by 2030 – and this challenge is only going to be exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Workplaces globally and in South Africa will not escape the repercussions, says Professor Karen Milner, from the Wits School of Human and Community Development, whose research focuses on mental health in the workplace.

“The world of work is rapidly changing and that pace of change has increased exponentially with the advent of the Covid-19. As we work from our dining rooms, home offices and couches, it is hard to believe that just a few weeks ago we were sitting in face-to-face meetings with colleagues – in close physical proximity, able to connect in ways that now seem so simple and straightforward,” she says.

Milner says mental health challenges as a result of the pandemic “are going to manifest in the workplace as well, as we all struggle to adapt to remote working, physically distanced from our colleagues, almost completely reliant on technology-mediated forms of communication”.    

It makes sense then that organisations and structures need to change to accommodate agility. “A fundamental consideration, however, is how this structure will impact the mental wellbeing of workers, considering the melting pot of personalities, social dynamics, power, performance and gender beliefs around work,” she says. Milner adds that workplaces will have to introduce ‘specific adaptations’ to ensure employee wellbeing after the pandemic, “but most of the fundamental principles that have been established over decades of research on worker wellbeing, remain pertinent”.  

Don’t band-aid toxic culture

One of Milner’s focus areas is employee wellbeing because, she says, psychology should place the wellbeing of human beings first. “So we look at how organisations can help and hinder people’s mental health – and the first point is that the nature of your organisation definitely does affect both physical and mental health and wellness in the workplace.”

While this means to some extent that green spaces, quiet areas, mindfulness pods and the like are important, it also means addressing toxic structures and behaviours in the workplace – such as bullying. “Remember that some mental health issues are formed at the workplace. In the case of bullying, we have to first stop that which contributes to it before introducing measures to address mental wellbeing.”

Her key message is to not “place band-aids on toxic culture”.

“It is always easier to introduce an external programme to foster wellbeing, than to tackle what harm the organisation itself is causing. The organisation must take responsibility and see where the practices and policies it has in place are causing problems and how they can be fixed, before looking at wellbeing at an individual level,” she says.

“Where the work itself is inherently stressful, more individualised interventions are necessary,” says Milner. “For example, providing employees with psycho-social support, opportunity for debriefing and if necessary, referring [them] to an employee assistance programme.”

The most typical way poor mental health manifests in the workplace is through depression, anxiety and burnout, says Milner.

Depression can manifest in different ways in the workplace. “Some signs for colleagues, managers and even the affected employees themselves to look out for include a person’s lack of interest in work and life, exhaustion and unexplained tiredness and high levels of irritability without a real reason,” she says. 

For some, it shows up as a headache and backache. People become withdrawn, and there are higher levels of mistakes and accidents.

Pause for support

And just how helpful are those coffee stations and pause areas really?

“Many organisations have wellness programmes in place which encourage employees to lead healthy lifestyles, and provide opportunities for relaxation through mindfulness, meditation, yoga and so on,” says Milner.

“There is certainly some research evidence that such practices can assist in reducing employee stress and improving their wellbeing, but again it is critical to emphasise that the responsibility for employee wellbeing should not rest on the individual employee alone – organisational leaders need to create an environment where employees feel that they matter, that they are cared for, that their work is important and valued and that their skills and abilities are being used effectively,” she says.

Coffee stations and pause areas can then help to reinforce the message that the organisation cares about their staff’s wellbeing. Allowing flexibility for healthy practices in the workplace is also key.

Presenteeism and unworkable woes

There are two aspects to mental wellbeing, explains Milner. One is general mental wellbeing of the healthy population, and the other is mental illness, which is a different concern.

“People with a mental health illness bear a considerable burden of unemployment. If their mental health could be improved, they might be able to work, and if accommodation for their mental illness can be made, their mental health may improve,” she says. “Secondly, for those who are employed but mentally unwell, the costs are extremely high for organisations.”

These costs usually come in the form of absenteeism, where people take time off work because they are ill. However, the concept of “presenteeism” also takes its toll as workers that are unwell – either mentally or physically – come to work, but are not productive. “This has a high rate of productivity loss, too,” says Milner. 

Discouraging stigma

The first step in creating a culture of wellness and care in the workplace is to remove the stigma from seeking help. “There must be a culture of trust which will allow people to reach out,” says Milner. The right help can make a person more productive, even in the case of psychiatric illness, which can be helped with medication.

“When there are psychological impacts which require counselling, therapy and sometimes medication, it takes a lot to reach out. Mental health illness creates vulnerability. People believe a diagnosis will be held against them, that they will be viewed as incapable or not strong enough. There is no quick fix for this, but an organisational structure that encourages communication is a good place to start,” she adds.

Beyond Tea and Tissues: Managing Mental Health in the South African Workplace by Karen Milner and Judith Ancer will be published in 2020.

  • Lem Chetty is a freelance writer.
  • This article first appeared in Curiositya research magazine produced byWits Communications and the Research Office.
  • Read more in the 10th issue, themed: #Mood how our mental health and wellbeing are impacted by the socio-economic, political, psychological, legal, ethical, cultural and technological interpretations of our world.