Mental Health: a global challenge affecting the workplace today and tomorrow
10 May, 2024

Elna van Wyk, Executive Head: Wellness and Strategy Hollard Group Risk



This year, the world will observe Mental Health Awareness Week between 13-19 May to educate the public about what has become the silent pandemic.

Mental health is part of overall wellness and covers mental health states on a continuum, from emotional well-being and a state of flourishing on one end to clinically significant challenges and mental health disorders on the other (sometimes causing a need for intervention). With the average face of the workplace looking younger and mental health conditions on the rise, it is increasingly important to understand the role of employers and insurers in co-creating a better future for employees. A workplace that prioritises employees’ mental fitness.


Mental health and youth


According to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 1 in 4 people worldwide will experience a mental health challenge at some point in their lives. However, the average age for the onset of half of all reported mental health conditions is 14 years. A study of mental health in adolescents aged 12 to 17 in South Africa shows that a high number of young people are living with common mental disorders, including depression (41%), anxiety (16%) and post-traumatic stress disorder (21%). (SHaW Study, 2016) Globally, there is a spike in mental health-related matters among the youth.

Many factors, such as prolonged exposure to adversity, pressure to conform to social norms, exploration of identity, quality of home life, and navigating relationships, predispose young people to mental health disorders. The more risk factors they are exposed to, the higher the potential impact on their mental health.

According to the South African Child Gauge in 2015, 37.2% of young people who reported extreme sadness had sought treatment from a counsellor or doctor.

This begs the question, what happened to the rest over time? The silent and untreated. They could be the employees showing up for work every day until one day, they don’t.


The impact of COVID-19


Mental health disorders among children and youth surged during the pandemic, and to this day, governments in the United States are searching for strategies to decelerate the impact thereof. (Politico, 2024) More than one in five high school students seriously considered suicide in 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 2020, The University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Social Change partnered with the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) to conduct a COVID-19 online survey. The results showed that 60% of adult South Africans were frequently stressed, and around a third (33%) were depressed. Before that unusual time in history, depression had been clinically measured at between 18% and 27%, so there was a significant increase during the pandemic. According to an article titled: Mental Health and COVID-19 in South Africa, therapy patients defaulting on their sessions cited contracting the virus, retrenchment, and unemployment as top causes of fear and anxiety. For many teenagers, the pandemic was the first time they had to bury a loved one or relative; many were separated from family members, missed out on socialising in public, and were forced to adapt to new ways of learning at home, all while “doom-scrolling” on social media watching businesses go bankrupt and governments scramble for a cure. The world became more anxious, but the pandemic disrupted a critical period of psychosocial development for adolescents. (Bell IH, Nicholas J, Broomhall A, et al., 2023)


The Psychiatric Claims queue is looking younger.


Depression and anxiety disorders are among the most common mental health disorders globally. WHO estimates that over 264 million people worldwide suffer from depression, and around 284 million suffer from anxiety disorders.

Every year, twelve billion working days are lost to depression and anxiety (WHO). This mental health pandemic, maybe less apparent than COVID, is raising concerns in the Insurance industry as the proportion of psychiatric claims has been increasing over the last couple of years, and these are also the type of claims that remain in payment for the longest time.

On the Hollard Group Risk book, we have noticed an increase in the percentage of psych-related claims and a decrease in the average age of claimants:

  • 2015-2017 – an average of 8.5% of claims were due to psych
  • 2021-2023 – an average of 12.5% of claims were due to psych
  • In 2023 alone – 13.8% of claims were due to psych
  • The average age of psych claimants is 2.6 years younger than that of other claimants (45.7 versus 48.4).
  • Psych claim proportions are noticeably high for claimants between ages 30 and 44.
  • The average age of claimants per year has been quite volatile, but it has been coming down since 2021 – from 48.3 years to 44.8 years in 2023.
  • From a gender perspective, psych is more of an issue for females than males:
    • Males – 6.7% of claims are due to psych
    • Females – 16.2% of claims are due to psych
  • On average, female psych claimants are three years younger than males—44.7 versus 47.6.


Turning the tide requires action.


Mental illnesses cannot be ‘cured’ by personal strength, determination, or motivation alone. They require treatment, cultivating habits promoting well-being and a socio-economic support network. WHO reports that globally, about 3 out of 4 people with mental health disorders do not receive treatment for their condition. Despite the prevalence of mental health issues, there are significant gaps in access to treatment and support.

Insurers must think differently about their role in managing these conditions for the future workforce, as this might significantly impact the sustainability of disability and death benefits. In addition to the Insurance benefits, finding a solution to support a ‘mentally well’ workforce is critical to reducing presenteeism and increasing workplace productivity.


Some of the strategies that could be considered:

  • Future employers of choice are those who shun “workism” (believing that one’s whole life should exist around a job) in exchange for celebrating the portfolio life (distributing time and talents across a range of areas such as work, health, community, hobbies, and rest.) (World Economic Forum, Future of Jobs, 2023)
  • In a post-COVID world, employers who offer caregiving/family-friendly policies that relieve work-family conflict will attract the best talent. (World Economic Forum, Future of Jobs, 2023)
  • Destigmatising Mental Health: One of the most significant barriers to seeking help for mental health issues is the stigma surrounding it. Mental Health Week is an opportunity to foster open conversations, raise awareness, and challenge misconceptions about mental health. By normalising discussions around mental illness, we can also encourage the younger members of our communities to seek support without fear of judgment.
  • Promoting Self-Care Practices: Teenagers, much like employees, face pressure from various sources, leading to stress and burnout. Introducing and encouraging self-care practices equips them with coping mechanisms to navigate life’s challenges. Whether it’s mindfulness exercises, creative outlets, physical activity, or a digital detox to reduce screentime, prioritising self-care fosters resilience and emotional well-being.
  • Access to Resources and Services: Mental Health Awareness Week is an opportunity to advocate for improved access to mental health services, including counselling, therapy, and peer support groups. Schools, healthcare providers, and community organisations are vital in ensuring teenagers can readily access the help they need. For employees, this network looks like an attentive manager, an active employee assistance program and information to helplines such as the South African Depression and Anxiety Group.
  • Empowerment: Like employees, empowering teenagers to take an active role in their mental health is essential for long-term well-being. Education on coping strategies, stress management techniques, and recognising signs of mental distress equips both groups with the knowledge and skills to be proactive in managing their mental health.





Bell IH, Nicholas J, Broomhall A, et al. The impact of COVID-19 on youth mental health: A mixed methods survey. Psychiatry Res. 2023;321:115082. doi:10.1016/j.psychres.2023.115082






@Elna van Wyk
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