SA industry professionals weigh in on Covid-19’s mental health toll

Professionals are facing a serious mental health crisis, calling for greater awareness and support in workplaces and within communities.

Fifi Sali, HR executive at Vuma, says while HR professionals are expected to play the role of “everything to everyone”, their needs from a mental and emotional wellbeing perspective are hardly taken into account.

“As HR professionals during the pandemic, it was our duty to hold space and make sure everyone was fine and that processes continued to run smoothly. We were expected to show up and introduce new ways forward in terms of policy changes that took into account, for example, how to best support employees living alone under lockdown, or how to help employees dealing with positive Covid-19 diagnoses,” says Fifi.

“We couldn’t tell them that in the process we were struggling, and there was no room for us to fall apart, despite us having our own pandemic-related challenges to deal with. In our line of work, there is the expectation to be on top of our game because we have so many people depending on us, and that did cause some anxiety at the outset,” she says.

According to Jacob Tema, a social worker for Rays of Hope who specialises in gender-based violence (GBV), the increased demand for specialised victim support during lockdown, especially in Alexandra where cases of GBV saw a sharp increase during lockdown, had an overwhelming impact on social workers.

“During lockdown there was a continued demand for social workers because they were designated as essential workers. This exacerbated burnout and compassion fatigue. Social workers also experienced secondary trauma as a result of clients in need of psychosocial support,” he says. In addition, shortages of social workers available to provide much-needed services in communities, and a lack of proper wellness programmes dedicated to “caring for carers” that include psychological debriefing, has contributed greatly toward mental health challenges among social workers.

Support systems are crucial

Matthew Peter Le Roux, better known as singer-songwriter Jimmy Nevis, shared that he also battled feelings of emotional exhaustion. “For me, it was a time of feeling helpless. Even though I was doing my best, it felt like it wasn’t enough,” he says. “Not being able to perform, work, travel or network, and the negative impact all of this has on your salary and income, is a lot to handle as a creative and entrepreneur. And on top of that, people were having to deal with the loss of family members.”

He says the recent spate of suicides and mental health incidences among creatives and entrepreneurs points to a need for greater support for South Africa’s up-and-coming artists, and increased efforts aimed at nurturing creativity and innovation.

With all the doom and gloom, strides have been made in dealing with mental issues in workplaces, with a number making counselling services more accessible to employees and increasingly making allowances for people to take “mental health days” in the year.

Organisations like the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) have also established online support groups for those suffering with various mental health challenges.