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COVID-19: Strategies should include mental wellbeing of employees, South Africa

6 April 2020
– 4 Minute Read


Widespread uncertainty about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to take a toll on the mental wellbeing of many South Africans. As the country moves deeper into the lockdown period, employers are encouraged to take whatever measures are reasonably available to them to help safeguard the mental health of their employees.

Understandably, the initial focus of most employers has been on ensuring physical protection against infection for employees and visitors to their offices, and enabling business continuity for their clients.

However, employers should not overlook the importance of seeking to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on employees’ mental wellbeing. The World Health Organization (WHO) has already flagged the rising stress levels that the COVID-19 crisis is generating, and countries such as Australia have announced government-funded programmes to help its citizens cope with the mental and emotional strains that accompany the pandemic.

In South Africa, many employers are facing severe financial constraints, with some struggling to pay employees’ salaries. Even in these uniquely difficult circumstances, the Occupational Health and Safety Act places a duty on every employer to, as far as reasonably practicable, provide a working environment that is without risk to the health and safety of its employees, which duty extends to the mental health of employees. Employees in turn have a duty to protect their own mental wellbeing.

That said, the issue of employee mental health goes beyond a legal duty; it has a human aspect too. Here are some measures employers may consider to safeguard the mental wellbeing of their employees.

Reaching out: the human factor

Working remotely is a new concept for many South Africans, bringing with it a plethora of potential stressors, from lack of reliable internet access to malfunctioning hardware and inadequate access to office equipment.

The consequences for a person’s mental health could be severe if, on top of the challenges that may go with remote working and simultaneously coping with the COVID-19 epidemic, an employee were to have little or no contact with her or his employer.

Regular communication is among the most critical contributions an employer can make to support employees during the lockdown. Keeping in touch digitally, not only to check on the progress of work, but to find out how employees are managing, could make a significant difference to employee morale and mental wellbeing.

It should be up to each employer, possibly in consultation with employees, to decide how often to reach out as this would vary depending on practical factors such as the size of work teams. However, the contact between employer and employee should be frequent enough – and of sufficiently good quality – to be meaningful.

Access to mental health resources

Employers can make employees aware of where and how they can access mental health support services and facilitate access to such services should they have concerns about their employees’ mental wellbeing.

Such services need not be company-provided services. While some employers have the resources to continue running employee assistance programmes, now online rather than in-person, others may not.

An abundance of free online resources has become available through reputable organisations such as the WHO and the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), whose websites have a wealth of credible fact-checked information on how to cope with the mental and psychological challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Taking shared responsibility

In these uncertain times, it is imperative that employers and their employees work together and take shared responsibility for safeguarding employees’ mental wellbeing.

Employees should play their parts by practising self-care, adopting healthy, and not destructive, coping strategies and making use of employee support services when these are needed.

Managers and team leaders may experience additional pressure relating to the responsibilities of their roles and should make a point of looking after their own mental wellbeing and reaching out for support when needed.

As organisations continue to grapple with ways in which to address the health, safety and productivity of their employees during the pandemic, we encourage employers to be proactive and implement support mechanisms aimed towards safeguarding the mental health of their employees.