HR Indaba Conversation discusses strategies for pre-empting a mental health epidemic

Organisations need to address mental health deliberately and proactively, say HR leaders.

Depression is now the leading cause of ill health and disability worldwide, affecting people of all ages, from all walks of life, in all countries. In an HR Indaba conversation titled “Healthy Outlook”, made possible by Sanlam Corporate, HR executives discussed how raising awareness for depression can help pre-empt a potential mental health epidemic.

Acting head of corporate distribution at Sanlam Nzwa Shoniwa presented some of the statistics they shared with their clients from their 2018 annual benchmark symposium, which revealed that apart from longevity at a country level, the benefits of a healthier population have obvious benefits of reduced health care costs, increased GDP through a more productive workforce and less absenteeism.

“Employee health and wellbeing is now widely acknowledged as a key driver of business success,” he said, and so some employers are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of looking after both the mental and physical health of their staff.”

CEO at Healthy Living Consulting Ronald Abvajee said he believes that if companies don’t address mental health issues head on, we might face an epidemic. “From last year, the NICD and different professors have said that the next pandemic we will be dealing with will be mental health,” he commented.

Athol Swanepoel, HR director, East and Southern Africa at Nestlé, said mental health is very high on the agenda at a global and local level. “We have put up some webinars in place where mental health is the theme of the conversation and we try by all means to create engaging platforms where people can discuss and interact with one another,” he said.

“Even at an executive level at Nestlé, we have fortnightly meetings where we discuss many things and mental health is featuring very highly on that list.”

Athol added that before the pandemic came around, people knew mental health and wellness was important, but Covid-19 really drove it home and now employers realise that it’s an indispensable part of ensuring that employees are well taken care of.

“Covid-19 has really helped bringing mental health to the fore,” he remarked. “Previously we knew it was important, but maybe we didn’t pay so much attention.”

He made reference to tennis player Naomi Osaka and gymnast Simone Biles who recently announced they were not coping mentally, and took some time off. “That is helping us to destigmatise something that we have tried to hide previously, and now we are more prepared to talk about it openly and put some measures in place, because our leaders and people we look up to are showing vulnerability,” he said.

Portia Thokoane CHRO at Dark Fibre Africa said that this is a critical conversation particularly now. “To echo what the other panellists said, holistic wellness – including mental wellness – is a foundational common currency not only for business success but for human morality as well,” she said.

“Globally, what the pandemic has revealed is that the education system has had a very strong emphasis on physical health and not mental health, and in organisations we can’t even assess if someone has a mental illness or not.”

She advised that businesses really need to step up and have tangible strategies, be advocacies of mental wellness and run anti-stigma campaigns, “because if we do not figure it out, we will certainly have a big problem on our hands.

“Another area that is a huge concern for us is that there aren’t clear insurance and employee benefits that cover mental health illnesses. It’s a problem that requires companies to come together and come up with solution and rectify this problem.”

In the chat

Keitha January, HR practitioner at the University of Witwatersrand: “We have a wellness offering for staff members and their family, and I think there are staff who reach out. I have noticed an increase in cases of depression; misconstrued at times as people being lazy, due to lack of understanding on the employer side of mental wellness. Also, great loss due to Covid and loss of family members, colleagues, friends – taking a huge toll on staff. As HR we need to be that safe space.”

Jean Robertson, PR manager at Henley Business School Africa: “Wellness can be the touchstone for successful companies of the future.”

Frank Magwegwe, lecturer at Gordon Institute of Business Science: “A good start is an employee survey using validated measures like the WHO Five Well-Being Index (WHO-5) that measures wellbeing. Taking those results to exco and board helps indeed. Research also shows helping employees find the HERO inside them helps. The HERO is: Hope, Efficacy, Resilience, Optimism – and these all are trainable.”