The number of people struggling with everything from depression to acute anxiety, burnout and even addiction is increasing exponentially in South Africa. This is due to an ever-growing number of factors outside of one’s control – from load shedding to worries about job losses, climbing interest rates, food prices and even crime and violence.
Jared Elliott, a spokesperson for the Choose Life Specialist Recovery Centre, South Africa’s leading private specialist rehabilitation centre and Riverview Manor Premier Specialist Rehabilitation Centre in Underberg, says that the fallout from poor mental health is having a negative effect on productivity and workplace well-being at a time when companies can least afford it.
However, he adds, companies themselves are also contributing towards this problem as many do not have the right policies in place to deal with mental health issues and do little to educate their managers to either assist employees to deal with their problems or remove the ever present stigma associated with mental health issues.
He says the fact that stands set up by Choose Life at corporate wellness days are amongst the busiest attest to both the extent of the problem and the degree to which staff feel that their employers are not addressing this issue.
Feedback from corporate wellness days as well as work done with large corporates and financial institutions, major manufacturers as well as government departments and municipalities suggests that no single sector is exempt and that the people experiencing problems are diverse and extend from senior managers and company owners downwards.
According to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), one in six South Africans suffers from anxiety, depression or substance-use problems.
A new study recently published by the University of the Witwatersrand suggests that rates of depression might even be higher – and certainly above the US, Germany, Australia and Brazil. But, just a quarter of sufferers receive treatment. (1)
According to Investec, health economists estimate that unaddressed mental health conditions (including depression and anxiety) cost the economy about R161 billion per year. (2).
But it is the very companies that are paying dearly for this problem that are probably in the best position to address it, Elliott believes.
“I believe big companies especially where most employees are seen these days as mere numbers rather than people should have a process/procedure that every month a survey should be run by HR enquiring one’s mental health or possible addiction, says Elliott. “ If this is done, the employee then has an option to sit with a qualified specialist (outsourced even from our rehab psychologists or social workers) they then can report if they do need help and the company to allow leave (Sick leave as this is an illness/disease) for their mental health to be addressed under a 21-day program. These days it can not only change lives but save the company millions contributing to work performance.”
He points out that depression, anxiety and burnout have a ripple effect. Persistent late coming can affect whole job lines whilst those who are exhausted from lack of sleep or resorting to substances like alcohol or even medication to ease their problems can actually endanger other workers, particularly in factories using potentially dangerous equipment.
A related problem is that some medical practitioners tend to prescribe highly addictive medication for anxiety. Elliott warns that this could lead to dependencies on drugs such as opioids which will, ultimately, also require rehabilitation.
Most importantly, Elliott points out that companies stand to benefit from investing in their workforces, especially in areas where there are skills shortages and experienced and knowledgeable personnel are an asset, he adds.
He says that organisations such as Choose Life are well positioned to support companies to put the correct policies in place and to train their staff to identify problems and support workers who are battling mental health-related problems. Legally, he adds, companies are required to assist with proactive treatment and cannot dismiss a staff member who is dealing with depression, anxiety, or addiction. Many employees are also unaware that medical aids cover treatment of mental health problems.
Most importantly, Elliott says, companies can also invest in their employees by restoring the all-important work-life balance that was all but obliterated during the Covid-19 pandemic. Even before this, people spent the majority of their time at work. During Covid-19, they were expected to work from home. The hangover from the pandemic – which sees people still working long hours from home – is creating highly destructive burnout.
“Work has entered our personal space. Now, a lot of people are taking that whole work environment to their homes. Sitting on one’s couch feels like sitting at one’s desk at work. So, a person cannot even escape the place that is the source of all the hurt, burnout and stress. At Riverview Manor and Choose Life, we believe that you can’t heal in the same place where you got sick.”
That’s why he believes that it is important for both companies and managers to re-instate those all-important boundaries between work and home and give employees enough time out to safeguard their mental health.
Caption: Pictured is Jared Elliott, National Marketing Manager for Choose Life and Riverview Manor. Jared is a recovering addict and is involved with Wellness Day talks at schools and with the clients at Choose Life and Riverview Manor
- A paper by the Wits/Medical Research Council Developmental Pathways for Health Research Unit (DPHRU) titled, The prevalence of probable depression and probable anxiety, and the associations with adverse childhood experiences and socio-demographics: A National Survey in South Africa. Published in the journal Frontiers in Public Health.