The State of Mental Wellness in a South African Workplace: Is HR living its values by Kgomotso Mopalami

Department of Home Affairs Sheds Light on Critical Skills in SA by Dylan Price
October 23, 2019
November 11, 2019

“Proactive Management Is the Best Medicine for Mental Illness In The Workplace” (Dr Ali Hamdulay).

The World Health Organisation (WHO)defines mental health as “ a state of well-being in which the individual realises his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his her community”.[1]  Research has revealed that South Africa is the fifth “most depressed country in Africa”.  This should be alarming and a driver on how best to deal with the pandemic.[2]  Regrettably, the prevailing situation is one in that physical illnesses receive broader attention than mental well-being. There are cases in this country most of us can relate to, where some community members took their own lives due to their state of mental well-being.  This should be a wake-up call for employers to have open debates about the situation and have a conducive environment where employees can be able to speak out, without any fear of victimisation. Educating and empowering employees might be some of the remedial actions to look at the latter.  Casey Chambers (SADAG Operations Director) said, “because people don’t know where to go to get help, or are too scared to seek it, the stats we have are still not a true reflection of what is actually happening on the ground”. There is still the perception that someone with a mental illness is crazy, dangerous or weak. Because there is often an absence of physical symptoms with mental illness, it is considered ‘not real’, a figment of the imagination.

Mental illness in the workplace is something to be taken seriously as it  can lead to decreased productivity, risk-related absenteeism, poor work quality, wasted materials and even compromised workplace safety.”[3]In South Africa, the month of October is declared the mental health awareness month, with the aim of educating and reducing the stigma. However, we often find that after any month of a specific observation, people tend to move on with their normal lives and forget some of the issues that are critical for the society, and especially in the workplace.  It is for this reason that I am writing this article post October month, to remind the HR community that the health issue at hand is still there and did not vanish into thin air, post October month. Having said the above, it is the onus of HR Professionals/Managers to ensure that the wellbeing of employees is a priority. “Never give up on someone with a mental illness. When “I” is replaced by “WE”, illness becomes wellness” -Shannon L. Alder.

Looking at the factors that are considered as key elements of psychological wellbeing[4], they are by no means excluding the workplace.  Those are: self-acceptance, personal growth, purpose in life, environmental mastery, autonomy and positive relations with others. 

To address the challenges in the workplace, several remedial actions can be adopted.  These are, but not limited to[5]:

  • Promote a work-life balance: Praising employees who work late and arrive early or expecting them to work from home in the evenings hurts your company in the long run. Without a healthy work/life balance, productivity is likely to decline, and employees are more likely to burn out.  Insist that employees take regular vacations where they are able to unplug from the office. Encourage everyone to develop a rich, full life outside of the office. People who engage in hobbies, spend time with loved ones, and take time to care for themselves make better employees.
  • Discuss mental health in the workplace: Don’t be afraid to bring up issues related to stress, depression, anxiety, or other mental illness. Make it clear everyone struggles to stay mentally healthy sometimes.  Educate managers about the signs of mental health problems and train them to respond appropriately. A caring conversation between a supervisor and an employee could also be instrumental in encouraging an individual to get help.
  • Offer free screening tools: Most mental health issues are left untreated because employees don’t recognise the signs and symptoms. They may pass off their issues as “stress” or they may try to convince themselves their problems will go away on their own.
  • Talk about EAP benefits often: Offering an EAP benefit that allows employees to access a handful of therapy sessions for free is important. But many companies don’t spend enough time reminding employees that they should access these services; remind your employees to use the EAP and remind them of their benefits often.  Reassure them that it is confidential!
  • Make wellness a priority: Exercise, healthy eating, and participation in leisure activities are a few simple ways to build mental strength and improve mental health. So, make it a priority to help people develop good habits. Whether you offer incentives to employees who participate in wellness programs, or you offer free gym memberships, make wellness a top priority for your organisation.
  • Provide in-service events: Provide employees with in-service trainings on self-care, stress management, and resilience. Hiring a therapist to provide half-day workshops a few times a year could go a long way toward preventing problems and emphasizing the importance of building healthy strategies into your daily life. These in-service trainings could save the company money in the long-term while also helping employees reach their greatest potential.
  • Support employees’ efforts to get help: While most employees don’t hesitate to take time off to go to the dentist, many of them are likely to be shy about addressing their mental health needs. Make it clear you support employees’ efforts to take care of their minds in the same way you want them to take care of their bodies.  Whether that means allowing an employee to take a mental health day or offering a flexible work schedule so an individual can attend therapy appointments, make it clear you won’t penalise anyone for taking care of their mental health.
  • Reduce the stigma: Talking about stress management, self-care, and mental health in meetings and in email communications can reduce the stigma associated with mental illness. When employees trust you won’t call them “crazy” for having a panic attack or fire them when they’re struggling with depression, they’ll be more willing to seek treatment. And fortunately, most mental health conditions are very treatable.

The Role of HR

There are 5 ways HR can help improve psychological wellbeing[6]

  • Although HR traditionally makes mental health an integral part of employee management, support and part of the business manpower planning and development process, HR should be an enabler and facilitator but not a direct owner which is best placed, owned and championed at C-suite level
  • Support a culture embracing health in all aspects and not differentiating mental health and potentially increasing focus and stigma
  • Integrate mental health and resilience for all into all training programmes. Make people management a core line manager competency
  • Encourage open and honest conversations at all business levels. Train all line managers to recognise when employees may be failing and developing a mental health problem, how to have empathetic and supportive conversations with employees and know where professional help is available
  • Make holistic lifestyle awareness, development and support programs which embrace exercise, sleep awareness and support, good nutritional advice, stress awareness, good social contacts readily available and develop a culture where 24-hour communications and impact on personal time is manageable.

Tell the employees:


In concluding, I would like to say, let us live our values as HR practitioners, and care about those who work selflessly and make everybody as well as the organisation shine.  We should not only put our focus on the physical wellbeing but also to know that the person next to you might be suffering mentally.  Those people await you to reach out to them.