Contemplating the cost to company caused by Covid

Momentum Corporate’s Elna van Wyk explores the impact Covid-19 will have on employees’ mental health and disability claims.

Covid-19 has brought unprecedented disruption to our lives and economy. It is clear that the stresses are significant and an increase in mental health-related disability claims from employees at all levels, including management, seems inevitable.

While some people have become over-productive while working from home, many are struggling with motivation. It’s possible a productivity slump could follow, threatening economic growth if mental health is not well managed in organisations.

The risk of employees not taking leave and becoming burnt out also increases the risk of mental health-related disability claims. Already at Momentum Corporate, nine percent of all disability claims are related to mental health. This percentage increases for younger employees, with 26 percent of all disability claims in 2020 for those under 35 years related to mental health.

Managers have to support employees and be mindful of the challenges they face, such as isolation, distractions at home, concerns about family and friends, anxiety over workload and working remotely, or the death of a loved one. Managers have to do this while dealing with the same issues in their own lives.

Impact on decision-making

Dealing with organisational challenges to keep businesses afloat can lead to decision fatigue for managers. This is the idea that willpower or ability to make good choices deteriorates in quality after an extended period of decision-making. Forced to make hard decisions with potentially severe consequences throughout the day, leaders might experience growing difficulty in accurately assessing the risks associated with different courses of action.

A recent study by North-West University and the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), which looked at the specific impact of Covid-19 and its related lockdown measures on people in the workplace, found that almost half the employees surveyed (46 percent) are at high risk of what researchers call pre-TSD (pre-traumatic stress disorder). As women tend to have additional domestic responsibilities on top of their professional ones, the current work-from-home scenario could see women – especially those in leadership roles – disproportionately impacted by stressors related to Covid-19.

While many people have lost their jobs, others who have returned to work are experiencing a lot of anxiety in navigating a sea of health and safety measures and a different work environment. For many people working from home, it has also meant a new level of multitasking and trying to do everything at once: working, looking after children and managing a household.

The uncertainty of the pandemic is having a dramatic effect not only on people with existing mental health issues, but also on those with no pre-existing psychiatric conditions. We are seeing this play out drastically in our claims area, and a likely increase in psychiatric disability claims means employers need to be equipped to deal with this and try to mitigate it where possible. There will be a need for support interventions that minimise the risk of disabilities related to mental health as workplaces adapt to the new normal.

Not every employer can afford an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), especially at this time. Fortunately, some large insurers offer telephonic counselling as a value-added benefit. Certain leading umbrella retirement funds also offer basic financial literacy as part of their benefit counselling services. This support may be essential for employees dealing with financial pressures.

Where a disability does occur, it is more essential than ever to make sure claimants have access to professional rehabilitation and wellness services through their insurer. These services minimise business disruption and facilitate a speedy, efficient return to productivity.

Addressing the nation’s mental health

Participating in a recent Momentum Covid-19 webinar, specialist psychiatrist Dr Mashadi Motlana said there is a larger issue to be addressed on a collective level.

“We are facing what I believe is an institutional stigma in terms of how healthcare spend is distributed. Only five percent of our national health budget is spent on mental health,” she said,

“In addition, the healthcare system is biased towards spending on tertiary care such as psychiatric facilities, and the majority of cases that should be treated in primary healthcare facilities are missed or not adequately managed. We need to make proactive efforts to shift the focus to identifying and intervening earlier, and promoting psychological wellbeing.”

Preventing lifestyle-related disabilities

The value of good health and healthy behaviour cannot be overstated as we emerge from the grip of the pandemic. Top group insurance service providers offer engagement programmes that incentivise employees to follow healthy lifestyles. Certain leading employee benefits service providers also reward the actual company for encouraging behaviours that drive employee engagement and productivity with rewards they can spend on employee wellness initiatives. This also has relevance for employers trying to get back on their feet within the Covid-19 context, on safety measures for workplace reintegration, or to support staff working remotely.

On the plus side, Mashadi said she was seeing an increased willingness to open up about mental health in the face of this pandemic. “I can’t stress enough the importance of needing to carve out time for self. Covid-19 is helping us to learn tools that we should always apply in our lives,” she said. “I believe that time management is perhaps the most critical of these tools, especially as the lines are now so blurred between our work and private habitats.”

Also presenting at the webinar, organisational psychologist Ingra du Buisson-Narsai unpacked how neuroscience can help employers cope with disruption to normal routines and the difficult decisions they need to make during these times.

“Covid-19 has shown us that when humanity is united in a common cause, we can change rapidly and phenomenally well when we act coherently and constructively,” said Ingra.

This means we first need to face the facts to minimise fear, then find the focus to enable growth and change, and finally flourishing to build mental stamina. She said there are seven factors we can deploy “to build an upward spiral of flourishing” instead of a “downward spiral of languishing”.

These factors include rebooting, renewing, reflecting, rebalancing, reframing, reconnecting, and refocusing.

I believe South Africa does not have the core standards to address mental health. Working with an experienced employee benefits provider can help with earlier detection and interventions that can prevent long-term disability related to mental health.

Momentum Corporate works with employer clients to implement such much-needed core standards. This includes preparing a plan for mental health at work, promoting effective people management, routinely monitoring employee mental health and wellbeing, developing awareness about mental health among employees, and encouraging open conversations about mental health and the support available for struggling employees.