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UNIVERSAL RIGHTS OP-ED

Workplace safety includes the protection and promotion of employees’ mental health

Workplace safety includes the protection and promotion of employees’ mental health

Health economists say neglected mental health conditions – including depression and anxiety – cost the South African economy R161-billion per annum due to lost work days.

The theme for this year’s World Mental Health Day, which fell on 10 October, was “Mental health is a universal human right”. According to the UN, this globally recognised event presents “an opportunity for all stakeholders working on mental health issues to talk about their work and what more needs to be done to make mental healthcare a reality for people worldwide”.

Sapien Labs’ annual Mental State of the World Report 2022, published in March 2023, says South Africa is one of the lowest-ranking countries in terms of mental health. Health economists estimate neglected mental health conditions (including depression and anxiety) cost the South African economy R161-billion per annum due to lost work days.  

What does this mean for employers?

Aside from the potential moral obligation to ensure they have a happy workforce, employers have a legal obligation to ensure they provide and maintain, as far as is reasonably practicable, a working environment that is safe and without risk to the health of its employees. This provision is encapsulated in section 8(1) of the Occupational Health and Safety Act, 1993 (Ohsa), which, among other things, provides for the health and safety of persons at work.

In this regard, Section 8(2) of Ohsa further provides more specific responsibilities for employers, which include but are not limited to:

  • Taking reasonable steps to ensure employee safety and health by eliminating or reducing hazards;
  • Establishing what precautionary measures should be taken with respect to such work;
  • Providing information, instructions, training and supervision as may be necessary to ensure, as far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety at work of employees; and
  • Enforcing such measures as may be necessary in the interest of health and safety.

Previously, Ohsa’s failure to expressly recognise mental health created confusion regarding whether mental health was included in the application of its provisions. However, the introduction of the SANS/ISO 45001 Standard for Occupational Health and Safety Management, which was introduced in August 2018, expressly confirms that an employer’s responsibility in relation to workplace safety includes the protection and promotion of employees’ physical and mental health, thus putting aside any debate on the relevance of Ohsa to mental health in the workplace.

Neither Ohsa nor SANS/ISO 45001 give direction or guidance as to how employers best achieve the obligations under section 8 of Ohsa in relation to mental health, which may mean that employers are unsure of how to tackle the difficulties associated with identifying and managing mental health issues in the workplace.

What can employers do?

A Deloitte survey, published in September 2022, provides clear insight into some of the key aspects which, in their opinion, facilitate and increase the effectiveness of the measures introduced to promote and maintain good mental health in the workplace.

These include high leadership involvement where employees acknowledged the importance of approachable and supportive senior management; management openly sharing their personal experiences with mental health; and mandated employee wellbeing check-ins.

In addition, it includes a supportive work culture where employees acknowledged the importance of a supportive and friendly work environment; awareness sessions; peer support initiatives; employee engagement initiatives; and working arrangement changes where employees acknowledged the importance of flexible working arrangements, supportive leave policies and work-life balance.

Employers, when being more mindful of managing the mental health barometer in the workplace, would be well advised to take heed of these aspects, some of which they may already be implementing for different reasons.

Insights for employers

Leadership sets the tone: employers should recognise that leadership engagement and involvement is central to promoting and maintaining a safe and healthy working environment. Mental health should be added to the agenda of management meetings, town halls and employee engagement sessions and to the KPIs of management and team leaders, with a view to keeping managers involved and accountable for workforce wellbeing.

Culture matters: employers should foster a culture that is supportive, inclusive and empathetic of the challenges that employees face. Removing the stigma associated with mental health issues is critical to creating such an environment. Regular awareness campaigns are key to achieving this goal, and “buddy systems” can assist in the day-to-day management of mental health, particularly in larger corporations.

Flexibility is favoured: employers should acknowledge the importance of a work-life balance for mental health. Remote, hybrid and flexible working arrangements should not only be viewed as a product of the pandemic, but employers should instead recognise that workplace wellness can be boosted through a well-considered flexible working model.

Mental health is an issue that can directly impact the employer’s bottom line. Employers, therefore, have a vested interest in proactively managing mental wellbeing in the workplace – from a moral, legal and financial perspective. DM

Lauren Salt is an executive in the employment department of law firm ENSafrica. Lara Keil is a trainee associate in the department.

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