Workplace Mental Health and COVID-19

Employees are the most important resource of any business. Production and turnover depends on stable, healthy and stress free employees. Research has shown that there is a direct relationship between good performance in the workplace and employees’ mental health. Employers cannot afford to lose business and skilled capable employees on account of poor mental health.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”  According to WHO’s definition, it is clear that mental health is all about the state of wellness.  Thus, poor mental health highlights the opposite.  In the workplace context, an employee with poor mental health is likely to disengage, perform poorly, does not cope well with stress, loses motivation, struggles  to make decisions, appears tired or absents himself from work due to ill-health and hardly meets deadlines, the list is not exhaustive.

The workplace is a place where employees spent most part of their time. Approximately 45 hours in 5 days.  Research shows that mental health illnesses such as burnout, depression and anxiety can be caused by stressors at work including inter alia the following: unrealistic deadlines, excessive workload, lack of recognition, poor leadership, poor communication and conflict. The question that remains, is whether the current labour laws protect the right to work on the one hand and right to mental health on the other

Lesotho has ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, which includes mental health in its definition of ‘disability’. Effectively, mental health issues have been afforded a blanket protection under the People living with Disability (PWS D??). This poses a problem in that the kind of accommodation expected to be given   to employees with mental health disorders is not airtight. There is an apparent struggle of balance between business owner’s interest in productivity and exhausting all avenues to accommodate an employee who shows clear signs of poor mental health such as absenteeism, incapacity, incompatibility or poor work performance.

The current labour laws are more inclined towards production and performance than on retaining or accommodating employees with mental health issues. To that extent the protection of mental health is questionable. There is need, therefore to have mental health conversations around the clock as a workplace issue.

Mental health awareness has to be an ongoing activity. As global citizens, we are currently facing the global mental health scare due to Covid-19. It is natural that people who happen to be employees will suffer mental health disorders like job stress, anxiety, depression and substance abuse. Behavioural changes such as, social distancing and quarantine do not make it any easy. The best that employers can do in this difficult times of the pandemic is to approach employees with empathy and support to create a mentally healthy environment for their employees to enable them perform well in order to keep the business alive.

Lesotho has just uplifted the nationwide lockdown that endured for five weeks.  The lockdown was a precautionary measure to contain the spread of the Corona Virus.  Daily conversations and news items focus on measures that people should take to safe guard against the contraction or transmission of Covid-19. The measures tend to cater for physical health and food security. Little is said about the mental and emotional health.  The sad reality is that there is uncertainty and economic instability that come with the disruption of the normal running of the businesses especially ‘non- essential services’. The lockdown meant employees had to stay at home, thus, production and income of business was put to a halt.

Employers and employee’s mental health is likely not to be spared under economic distress. There is real fear and anxiety for loss of business and income for employers and there is real fear and anxiety for salary cuts and retrenchments in the worst case scenarios. Employers tried to develop business survival strategies like working from home. However, due to the emergency nature of the implementation of the lockdown, a thorough preparation and support for the employees was not done. It therefore goes without saying that such attempts, are likely not to be as effective, hence the stress and anxiety.

The economic crisis that comes with the pandemic demands mentally healthy employees to be efficient and resilient. For those employers that have employee wellness programmes, this is the time to offer the best counselling, therapy even food parcels to prevent mental illness. This is the best time to develop wellness policies that re-acclimatise workers back to work and are sustainable.

Tharollo Consultancy is committed to develop policies and programmes that will help institutions promote mental health in the workplace to enhance productivity. 

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