Mental Health Awareness Month Article 1

We’re all familiar with the adage, “health is wealth”. What the adage implies but does not explicitly include is that mental health is wealth, too. A fruitful way of approaching Mental Health Awareness Month is to consider not just the factors that contribute to poor mental health, but what we can do for ourselves and for our teams to contribute positively to mental wealth.

But before we explore the measures that leaders can take to invest in the mental wealth of those under their guidance, it’s important to be informed of the many factors that create mental health challenges in the first place.


Context: the South African workplace is in a mental health crisis…

A range of recent statistics point to a grim reality: South Africa is in a mental health crisis. A 2022 whitepaper published by the Wits/Medical Research Council Developmental Pathways for Health Research Unit  reveals that 25.7% of South Africans are most likely depressed, with more than a quarter of respondents reporting moderate to severe symptoms of depression.

Furthermore, according to a fact sheet compiled by the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), approximately six million South Africans could be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Overall, the country scored the lowest average score on the mental well-being scale, according to Sapien Lab’s 2021 Mental State of the World Report.

We cannot ignore the profound impact of COVID-19 on national mental health challenges. While the effects of the pandemic on mental health in the United States and elsewhere in the West have been documented exhaustively, few of these insights reflect the particular effect that local lockdowns had on South Africans. The World Health Organization has determined that, since the pandemic, South Africa has seen a 36.4% increase in anxiety disorders and a 38.7% increase in major depressive disorders.

According to a 2020 survey conducted by SADAG to investigate the effects of the initial lockdown on mental health, 59% of respondents felt stressed or very stressed before the lockdown, and 65% felt stressed or very stressed for the duration of lockdown. Furthermore, an overwhelming 59% of respondents reported that they had been diagnosed with a mental health disorder before lockdown. However, despite the reports of high stress levels related to the lockdown, 92% of respondents were in support thereof.

While these statistics reflect that the South African lockdown had a significant impact on national mental health, it also demonstrates that the country was facing a mental health crisis before the arrival of the pandemic. Although the pandemic certainly isn’t singlehandedly responsible for the current mental health crisis in South Africa, it certainly exacerbated the effects of existing stressors like inequality, poor service delivery, load shedding, crime, gender-based violence, and more.


…and it’s affecting the bottom line.

According to an overview of depression in South Africa published by SADAG in partnership with Discovery Health, depression alone has a significant impact on the local economy. The results of their study reflect that:

  • Depression costs South Africa more than R218 billion in lost working hours.
  • Presenteeism (attending work while unwell) costs the country R190 billion in reduced productivity.
  • The cost of depression to the country is 42% higher than the value contributed to the economy by the local tourism sector.
  • The cost of depression was 1.5X higher than what the South African budget allocated towards social protection in 2015.

Corporate wellness speaker, health specialist, and advisor to elite athletes and businessmen, Richard Sutton, puts the cost of presenteeism to the South African economy even higher — by his estimation, employee disengagement costs the country R229 billion every year.

The cost of poor mental health to the well-being of employees and the bottom line of businesses puts a lot of pressure on team leaders to manage their employees and coworkers. However, with the right toolkit, investing in and sustaining mental wealth is wholly achievable.

What does it mean to lead with mental health in mind?

Richard Sutton published his 2021 book Stressproof: The Game Plan with the objective of equipping team leaders with tools to shield those in their sphere of influence from the effects of stress. Why? Because “[l]eadership is not about title”, says Sutton. “It’s about the commitment to the well-being of others.”

In his book, Sutton argues that leaders in contexts ranging from families, sports teams, corporate departments, and business teams have a significant degree of influence over the people they work with. Because of this influence, leaders have a responsibility to protect the people operating under their guidance.

“A lot of people under your influence are crying out for someone to take charge,” says Sutton. Many South Africans are struggling with pessimism and negativity. What they need, he continues, is a leader who demonstrates an urgent and speedy mandate to empower them, to solve their problems, to give them a voice. “These are the things”, he tells us, “that are going to remove the chronic stress scenario.”

Ultimately, team leaders cannot remove the stressors that cause mental health challenges in their employees. But they can help eliminate the stress itself. Not only is this a capability of strong leaders, argues Sutton — it’s one of their core responsibilities.

How leaders can invest in mental wealth in the workplace

Stressproof: The Game Plan contains countless practical tips for leaders who are striving to alleviate the burden of stress on those under their guidance. “If you are a leader,” Richard Sutton tells us, “you have been given the gift of creating environments of perceived control.” Bearing this gift in mind, his book provides the following practical tips on how to invest in the mental wealth of your team:


  1. Give employees a say in the decisions that affect them in the workplace. In the seventy years of study on the root causes of stress, one factor resurfaces time and time again: a sense of a loss of control. Empowering employees with a degree of agency is guaranteed to reduce the experience of stress in the workplace. As a team leader, these acts of empowerment can be as small as asking for input on role assignments in a project before they are finalised, or as big as giving employees the option to choose between hybrid or in-office work models.
  2. Limit micromanaging. The most powerful way to empower employees with a sense of agency is by trusting them with ownership of their work. Mistakes are inevitable; try to focus on correcting them in a teachable moment rather than preventing them altogether.
  3. Cultivate a culture of community. Loneliness and isolation can exacerbate the effects of stress and depression, especially in the age of remote work. Create an environment of connection by checking in with employees remotely and in the office. By modelling this behaviour, you are also showing employees that check-ins can come from those working next to each other, not just from those working above them.

Investment is an act of devoting time, energy, and resources to a particular undertaking with the hopes of a greater payoff in the future than was originally committed. This Mental Health Awareness Month, apply a familiar concept to the idea of mental wealth — and it all starts with leading with mental health in mind.

About the Author

Zissy Lewin
Writer & Content Creator, Mama Creative

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