Mental health is the biggest risk facing SA society
25 Jul, 2022

The biggest risk facing organisations and wider society today is the mental health of our workers and citizens.

The pandemic was an unexpected and unprecedented global event that demanded we change our lives drastically, in an unusually short space of time. It hit us all hard, and we had to adapt quickly.

Organisations pivoted quickly, shifting workforces online in a matter of days. As business continuity plans were rolled out at pace, corporate SA patted itself on the back for a job well done: a seismic shift had taken place and many companies were operating at full capacity with employees working remotely but productively.

Yet, at what societal cost has this transformation occurred?

Because we can work from anywhere, we land up working any time. The Economist cited a study that looked at how much longer people in certain countries were working as a result of the pandemic. South African workers rank high, illustrating that we’ve been putting in more work hours a day compared to other countries.

On the face of it, it doesn’t sound that bad – what’s an extra 38 minutes a day? But over a working week that’s an additional three hours and over the course of a month, we’re talking about an extra 12 hours – a full working day and a half.

The pandemic has blurred the previously well-defined lines between work and home. Added to this, we are all dealing with the constant anxiety associated with the pandemic, the stress of protecting ourselves and our families from infection, and various forms of pressure as a result of ongoing lockdowns.

In the weeks following the announcement of the national hard lockdown in March 2020, Lifeline South Africa recorded over 4 000 calls a day — they usually receive this many calls over the course of a week. Meanwhile, calls to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) more than doubled.

Clearly, our mental health is at stake.

How can we mitigate some of this mental health risk?

As with all risk, the best way to protect oneself is by trying to mitigate the risk in the first place. There’s a saying about boundaries creating good neighbours, which has particular relevance here. While often easier said than done, making sure there is a clear distinction between work and home will go a long way towards alleviating some of the stresses associated with “never switching off”. Many of us may actually miss our daily commute to the office – a time to breathe and to reflect. Now we have to be more deliberate about carving out this time for ourselves.

If anything, the pandemic has taught us that life needs to be simplified. We’ve always defined our lives and way of living in such complex, busy ways. The pandemic has highlighted what’s important in life and that we should be taking the time to enjoy the small and simple things, to take in meaningful moments.

This doesn’t just apply to one’s personal life – our work lives need to be simplified too and our organisations need to step up to the mark to support us.

What can companies do to support their workers in this changing paradigm?

First and foremost, organisations need to define what flexible working means to them. For some it will not be an option, and then they will need to clearly communicate their reasons for this to their employees to ensure their buy-in.

My sense though, is that most companies will embrace an element of flexibility post-pandemic. Recent research by Momentum Corporate shows that around half of the organisations surveyed are planning for their employees to return to their worksites, while 44% plan to adopt a hybrid model. Meanwhile, research from Afriforte shows that 50% of employees surveyed would like to continue working from home after the pandemic, while 41% are keen on a hybrid work model. Only 4% would like to return to the worksite.

Adopting a more flexible working model will come with both risks and opportunities, both of which will need to be effectively managed and communicated to employees. Good communication will help address some of employees’ mental strain associated with the uncertainty of what the working world is going to look like from here on out.

It will be down to individual corporates to decide on whether to adopt a 100% flexible model or whether more of a hybrid solution would work best. Part of the consideration will be which model provides the best support to employees while also fostering productivity, enabling flexibility and effective risk management. Achieving this will add genuine value to employees.

It will also likely require an investment in technology and present an opportunity for some form of digital transformation that helps employees connect anytime and from anywhere.

Another element for deliberation will be office space. What will this look like under a flexible work model or a hybrid solution? Will increased flexibility be associated with less property occupation or will a hangover from the pandemic create a need for increased space to accommodate social distancing?

A major consideration for organisations must also be whether HR policies, like holiday and sick leave, are still relevant in their current form. They were created around a certain way of living that the pandemic has changed. For many companies, the old way of working doesn’t exist anymore.

I think there’s a real possibility that retirement ages will change given we’re going to be living in a different state of physical and mental wellness compared to a pre-pandemic status quo.

In some cases, a massive organisational culture shift away from traditional modes of working will be required to meet the challenges, risks and opportunities associated with incorporating flexibility into the corporate world.

We’re all risk managers in our own way

It’s important to remember that risk management is not just the domain of regulators and organisations. We’re all risk managers in our own way – we manage varying degrees of risk every day and it’s crucial that we too are agile and flexible in our approach to risk, including mental health risks.

Regulators and organisations have their role to play in supporting and protecting us but at the end of the day, you are the most suitable risk manager for yourself – you know best what stresses you out and what calms you down.

Take the time to listen to yourself, to appreciate the simple things that give you peace and recharge you. Your mental wellness is one of your greatest assets – look after it.



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