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Mental health in the workplace: an overview for employees

“The workplace can be a source of both stress and fulfilment. It’s up to us to create a culture that fosters the latter,” says Esther Perel, a renowned psychotherapist and host of the podcast, “How’s Work?”. By conducting one-time therapy sessions with coworkers, cofounders, and colleagues on the podcast, Perel brings a new perspective to the invisible forces that shape workplace dynamics, connections, and conflict.

Ultimately, the conversations that happen on “How’s Work?” tell us two things: the keys to mental well-being in the workplace are open communication, mutual respect, and a willingness to learn from each other, and we have more control over creating a healthy workplace than we realise. All you need are the right tools.

This is an encouraging insight, especially considering that South Africa is in a mental health crisis. According to a 2022 whitepaper published by the MRC/Wits Developmental Pathways for Health Research Unit (DPHRU), more than a quarter of South Africans are most likely depressed. Furthermore, a fact sheet compiled by the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) reflects that approximately six million South Africans could be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Finally, South Africa achieved the lowest score for mental well-being in the 2021 Mental State of the World Report by Sapien Labs.

It’s clear that the country is facing significant collective mental health challenges, and the workplace is one area in which these challenges manifest. Soaring rates of depression and presenteeism cost the country upwards of R229 billion per annum; the cost to employees is harder to quantify, but it’s comparatively significant.

For these reasons, the fourth and final article in the Mental Health Awareness Month series focuses on how employees can equip themselves with a more nuanced understanding of mental health as well as some practical tips.

Continuing on our theme from the first article, we are doing so with a focus on going beyond protecting mental health and actually investing in mental wealth.

The post-pandemic epidemic of burnout and presenteeism

To begin to understand the current mental health crisis in South Africa, we must reflect on the effects of COVID-19. According to a 2021 Mental State of the World Report by Sapien Labs published last year, South Africa and the United Kingdom scored the lowest of 34 countries rated for mental well-being with a score of 46. For reference, the country that was most highly rated for mental well-being (Venezuela) had a score of 91.

The report found that declines in mental well-being were significantly correlated with the stringency of COVID-19 measures in 2020 and 2021, among other factors. Like the rest of the world, South Africa’s lockdowns forced significant changes in the workplace, which in turn may help explain the emerging prevalence of burnout, presenteeism, and other mental health challenges.

Corporate wellness speaker and stress specialist, Richard Sutton, asserts that burnout and presenteeism are two topical mental health issues which are costing the South African workforce financially and emotionally. The conditions which have bred these challenges have their roots in the unprecedented pressures associated with the pandemic, but their effects continue to affect the workplace today.

What is burnout?

According to Sutton, burnout is not just physical exhaustion and depletion. It’s also characterised by:

  • A sense of cynicism
  • Emotional volatility
  • Mental distance (disengagement) from one’s job
  • A corroded sense of self-esteem

Burnout is commonly caused by a combination of increased demand for productivity, insularity, and isolation (a potential side-effect of remote work), and role insecurity — that is, a perceived lack of control over job continuity. In a state of burnout, everything an employee does becomes less effective and less efficient.

What is presenteeism?

Whereas absenteeism describes employees who don’t come to work for health-related reasons, presenteeism describes employees who come to work but are unwell, disengaged, or dissatisfied.

Sutton reveals that presenteeism can be caused by poor mental well-being and that it results in low productivity as well as suppressed creativity and innovation — ultimately costing the country hundreds of billions of Rands every year. This corroborates Sapien Lab’s findings, which tell us that absenteeism and presenteeism increase substantially in the negative ranges of the MHQ (Mental Health Quotient) scale.

Investing in your mental wealth

So, how can employees mitigate the effects of burnout, presenteeism, and other mental health challenges in the context of the workplace?

1. Recognise the symptoms

The first step is recognising the symptoms of these prevalent mental health challenges in yourself and others. Common symptoms of burnout, depression, and anxiety include:

  • Disinterest and disengagement from one’s job
  • Disturbances in sleep
  • Outbursts of irritability or anger
  • Intense and frequent feelings of being overwhelmed or hopelessness

The symptoms of these mental health challenges differ from person to person. SADAG has many helpful resources on depression and anxiety, as well as topical infographics on the impact of local challenges (like load shedding) on mental health.

2. Confide in your community

A SADAG infographic on Mental Health and Stigma in the Workplace revealed that 19% of respondents feared disclosing a mental illness for fear of discrimination. However, in a healthy workplace, disclosing mental health challenges to your colleagues is no different than disclosing physical health challenges like diabetes or migraines.

In fact, alerting your manager in advance can be the key to getting the full range of support measures you may need if your health worsens.

Richard Sutton maintains that one of the key causes of burnout is a lack of community support that comes with insularity. “It’s not just the emotional component, but the instrumental component,” he says. We still need colleagues to guide and instruct us through our responsibilities, especially for more junior employees.

3. Prioritise your health

“Self-care is no longer an option,” says Sutton. “You cannot think twice about eating well, exercising regularly, and investing in your environment.” To this end, Sutton supplies his readers with these action steps from his first book, The Stress Code: Surviving to Thriving:

  1. Reframe your perception of stress by looking at short-term stress as a performance advantage
  2. Create meaningful connections with the people in your community
  3. Make a conscious effort to turn your stress off at some point in the day
  4. Make your health a priority
  5. Be adaptable, be agile, and be persistent

Furthermore, Sutton’s research into stress management has proven that the following practices are extremely effective at reducing stress:

  • Deep breathing
  • Yoga
  • Meditation
  • Cold-water immersion (whether that be cold-water swimming or simply putting an ice pack on your face or neck)
  • Swimming for leisure
  • Acupuncture and reflexology
  • Massage, physiotherapy, and chirotherapy

By taking small, achievable steps to invest in your own mental wealth, you can build resilience and ultimately contribute to a healthier workplace. After all, work and the workplace can be a salve for many mental health challenges — provided that colleagues look after themselves and each other.

Sources: Esther Perel: How’s Work? Podcast, DPHRU 2022 White Paper, SADAG, Sapien Labs, Stressproof by Richard Sutton

About the Author

Zissy Lewin
Writer & Content Creator, Mama

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