Workplace wellness: Why businesses should prioritise employee mental health

Even before the pandemic, statistics released by the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag) showed that as many as one in six South Africans suffer from anxiety, depression or substance-use problems. Aside from the personal toll it takes on individuals, depression alone is estimated to cost South Africa R232-billion a year due to lost productivity.

World Mental Health Day on October 10 is a reminder to every organisation in the country to focus on mental wellness in the workplace, paying particular attention to the needs of employees struggling with anxiety, depression or substance-use problems. Mental health should always be a priority in any progressive workplace, but it’s more important than ever in these difficult times.

Covid-19 has added to the stress that many South Africans already face. Health fears, isolation and loneliness as a result of working from home, and financial worries due to salary reductions or a partner losing their jobs are just some examples of the challenges people are facing today.

International stats paint a frightening picture of deteriorating mental health during the crisis. In the US, for example, August marked six consecutive months of higher than normal mental health issues in the workforce. Feelings of anxiety were 23% higher than pre-pandemic levels and feelings of depression were 30% higher.

In addition to helping everyone navigate these crazy times, it is important to provide a nurturing and accommodating work environment for those with mental illnesses.

Creating a happy environment

Here are a few tips on how your company can be more sensitive towards those with mental illnesses and how you can create a supportive environment that boosts your team’s well-being and minimises the impact on productivity.

Be transparent and accepting

Have open conversations that create awareness among your team. By law, employees are not required to disclose mental illnesses, but it is often in everyone’s best interest to do so. They will only feel comfortable doing so if the company takes an understanding stance on mental health challenges and has support mechanisms in place.

Be accommodating

Mental illness can be triggered by stressful situations. Consider offering flexitime and other accommodating working environments to those under stress. Some people, for example, might feel they’ll be more productive at home than around other people, even as most employees return to the office under lockdown level 1.

Drive awareness

Create awareness and educate your workforce on mental illness and encourage sensitivity and understanding among co-workers through integrated employee wellness programmes and talks facilitated by experts.

Offer quiet spaces

Create a dedicated “quiet zone” in the office, where teams can retreat to meditate or catch their breath in times of high stress. The benefits of meditation include increased immunity, creativity and productivity, and improved employee relations.

Use technology to connect and unplug

It’s important to use technology that offers a human touch and to offer support networks to avoid people feeling disconnected and alienated if many are still working from home.

Employees will remember how the company made them feel in times like this, and an increased focus on their well-being is something employees will value.

Encourage time out

Many organisations are worried about the months of lost revenue and productivity this year. Likewise, many employees are worried about their jobs or their lower productivity during this time. Even so, advocate strongly for people to take their annual leave.

Promote your employee wellness programmes and support resources

If you have an employee wellness programme, encourage employees to get engaged. Also let them know where they can seek confidential help within the business if they are depressed, anxious or approaching burnout. If you don’t yet have any employee mental wellness initiatives, there are some straightforward ways to start:

Webinars could reinforce the importance of physical fitness and exercise, linking these to emotional wellness.

Employees can also be encouraged to engage in guided meditation or yoga.

A weekly session with a clinical psychologist can help keep teams stay motivated and promote inner peace in difficult times.

Investing in the team

Managing mental wellness in the workplace is one of the key challenges for the next few months as we deal with the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus, but it is also part of the culture of any company that cares. By investing in the health and well-being of your team, you will not only reduce absenteeism but will create a working environment that will attract and retain top talent.