Opinionista Nomfundo Mogapi 17 May 2020

We must take action to mitigate the impact of Covid-19 on mental health

South Africa was already in a state of crisis with a population that was psychologically depleted, even before Covid-19. The pandemic, with its increased fear and stress, is eroding this even further.

Our responses to the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent recovery is likely to exacerbate our mental health crisis, unless we appreciate the importance of investing in our human and social capital by prioritising this crisis in our responses.

South Africa was already suffering from a crisis of unresolved psychic pain with limited emotional reserves to draw from when the first Covid-19 case brought more anxiety and fear early in March 2020. Now, with more than 12,000 cases, a rising number of deaths and a deteriorating economy, this crisis has been exacerbated.

According to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), untreated mental disorders cost the South African economy more than R35-billion in lost working days each year. One in six South Africans suffers from severe depression or from some form of mental disorder during their lifetime.

Nerine Kahn and Joy Beckett, co-founders of Employment Relations Exchange, argue in a South African Federation for Mental Health (SAFMH) paper that depression contributes to 69% of indirect costs such as loss of productivity, absenteeism and disability.

Reports note that depression costs the South African economy more than R40-billion or 2.2% of the country’s GDP. As early as 2013 and 2014, the Council for Medical Schemes (CMS) Report 2013-14 indicated that total mental health benefits paid per average beneficiary per month increased by 58%.

Even before the outbreak, mental health practitioners such as Dr Ali Hamdulay called for a paradigm shift in business in relation to their investment in mental health. Hamdulay further cautioned that business had underestimated the extent of the impact that mental health had on the bottom line.

It is thus important to ensure we deal not only with the physical health and economic aspects of Covid-19, but also with the mental health impact to protect and build the human and social capital needed to (re)build our country and its economy.

These responses need to include interventions at leadership, institutional and individual levels.

Most leaders and managers are already at the forefront of responding to Covid-19 and are operating from a survival mentality mode with a high risk for burnout, compassion fatigue and other stress-related illnesses. This means that the very human capital needed to rebuild the country and ensure recovery is already being worn out.

If this is not addressed, these leaders will exhibit high levels of stress-related illness resulting in absenteeism and poor performance. For those who insist on coming to work while still suffering from burnout, increased workplace conflict and inability to contain and support the stressed workforce is likely to ensue. It is therefore crucial that leadership debriefing, coaching and mentorship be an integral part of Covid-19 responses and recovery.

At an institutional level, we will see similar levels of overwork, high stress caused by the impact of the financial crisis and new rules of working. Work wellness issues regarded as soft or a luxury are going to be crucial in a post-Covid-19 environment. Investing in developing a positive and supportive workplace climate and psychologically informed change management processes will also be crucial at an institutional level.

At an individual level, South Africans have reported high levels of anxiety related to a lack of food, fear of losing jobs, increased domestic violence and fear of illness that are putting a huge strain on families, and are crucial in providing the social capital that is needed to build emotional resilience against these hardships. These stressors are therefore likely to affect one’s emotional state in the workplace. Parenting, couple, family interventions and individual counselling will be crucial at this stage in order to ensure that families become hubs of building social capital rather than further stressors.

Our efforts to curtail the negative aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic will fail if we do not take decisive action to mitigate its impact on our mental health. DM

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