Practical advice to help prevent mental health struggles in the workspace

The work environment plays a pivotal role in employee mental and emotional well-being. Picture: Unsplash

The work environment plays a pivotal role in employee mental and emotional well-being. Picture: Unsplash

Published Jan 17, 2024


Imagine nearly four in 10 people around you facing a mental health challenge. That’s the reality in South Africa, according to “The Mental State of the World in 2022” report.

With a new year ahead of us Dr Marion Borcherds from AfroCentric (part of the Sanlam family) reminds us that being mentally healthy is just as important as being physically fit, especially at work.

“We’ve got to get comfortable talking about mental health in our jobs," said Borcherds.

She has noticed that young people especially kept quiet about how they were feeling because they were scared of being judged or being seen as not good enough.

And with two-thirds of young South Africans not seeking help for mental health issues, as a Unicef U-Report poll highlights, something needs to change.

In a concerning revelation from the American Psychological Association’s (APA) 2023 Work in America Survey, it has been reported that over one-fifth of workers suffer mental health harm due to toxic work environments.

The survey says 22% of employees find themselves in harmful conditions at work that directly affect their mental well-being. This issue appears to be more prominent in certain job roles, with customer service workers facing the brunt of the problem.

Customer service employees are seeing verbal abuse rates at 31%, which is notably higher compared to the 23% and 22% reported by manual labourers and office workers, respectively, the APA survey highlighted.

Physical violence is also a worrying occurrence, with manual labourers experiencing higher instances at 12%. This is in stark contrast to the 5% of office workers and 6% of customer service staff who face similar situations.

Discrimination and derogatory actions pose another serious concern. The findings show that 22% of workers observe discriminatory behaviours in their workplace, and 15% are victims themselves.

Furthermore, 28% have seen unpleasant remarks or jokes made about someone’s identity, and 19% have been subjected to such behaviour..

Alarmingly, those stuck in toxic workplaces are three times more likely to experience mental health damage when compared to their counterparts in positive work environments.

With 19% of workers labelling their workplace as toxic, the urgency for change is clear.

Since many of us spend a lot of our day at work, Borcherds says companies must let people talk about their mental health and support them. The shift towards a supportive work environment is not just a fleeting trend; it’s a clear demand from the workforce.

The average employee spends a substantial portion of their life at work. It’s no surprise that the work environment plays a pivotal role in employee mental and emotional well-being.

According to The Mental State of the World in 2022 report, 35.8% of the South African population is facing mental health issues.

A Wellable article reports that the APA’s recent findings underscore the gravity of the issue, revealing alarming statistics that shed light on the prevalence and consequences of workplace toxicity.

From interpersonal dynamics to managerial practices, a toxic workplace can erode organisational culture, hamper employee satisfaction, and contribute to higher turnover rates.

Borcherds offers pointers on how to change the work environment:

Make it normal to talk about mental health

Just like you’d talk about a project at work, we should be able to talk about mental well-being too. With more people feeling stressed or anxious after the pandemic, Borcherds believes workplace wellness programmes are key.

“Employees should have a say in what these programmes offer.”

Teach and learn together

There’s a lot of things most people don’t know about mental health. Borcherds encourages businesses to learn and then teach their teams about mental health issues, treatments and ways to cope.

Knowing more can take away some of the fear and help everyone feel safe.

Mind your words

The words we use can affect how people feel. “Think before you speak to avoid hurting someone who’s already struggling,” Borcherds added.

It’s brave to ask for help

If you’re going through a tough time, it’s more than okay to get support, and workplaces should offer help like counselling or someone to talk to. “Reaching out shows strength.”

Get the full support package

The Sanlam Umbrella Fund has started giving free sessions with psychologists to help members deal with stress and other mental health issues.

This step, as Nzwananai Shoniwa from Sanlam Corporate puts it, helps the workers and the company by reducing the number of days people take off because of stress.

Share your story

If you’re okay with it, open up to your co-workers about your mental health experience. Doing this can make everyone feel more connected and remind them they’re not alone.

“To really tackle mental health stigma in the workplace, we all need to chip in and support one another. Let’s break down these barriers together,” said Borcherds.