Why it’s vital that companies’ mental health initiatives address the underlying issues

When the Covid-19 pandemic first began, and we entered our first 21 days of lockdown in March 2020, it was unimaginable that we would find ourselves here almost 20 months later. And we certainly wouldn’t have guessed that mental wellness would have become such a large part of our conversations, both inside and outside of business.

I have been quite amazed by how corporates have responded to the mental health challenges that have arisen in large part, because of Covid-19. Organisations across the board have accepted that the pandemic has had a profound impact on their employees, who have had to cope with a multitude of upheavals and changes, and that for many, this has resulted in a spike in existing mental illness, or caused it in those who haven’t experienced it before.

Traditionally, pre-Covid-19, you might have had a superficial understanding of your colleagues’ personal circumstance. Now we are being introduced to the inside of people’s homes, meeting their cats and dogs, couriers, and children in our virtual meetings. The walls between work and our personal lives have come tumbling down; we are privy to the challenges employees are facing in their personal lives. And it’s not always comfortable.

Very sadly, self-harm and suicide are on the increase, and gender-based violence (GBV) has escalated. These are the realities that organisations are having to manage in order to support their employees.

Before the pandemic, organisations were comfortable to outsource mental wellness. They would pay an external wellness company to handle mental health issues, but they weren’t closely involved, or attuned to the impact it had on employees, or their performance. Thanks to Covid-19, there’s been a significant turnaround.

Across the world, we’ve seen companies putting incentives in place to give employees breathing room. There are myriad examples – LinkedIn gave staff an extra paid week off to re-energise if affected by burnout, and offer work flexibility. Google used “resilience training videos”,  tutorials and video content for employees experiencing burnout while working through the pandemic. Facebook allowed workers to take the entire week of Thanksgiving off.

Closer to home we’ve seen initiatives from MTN, who gave employees an additional week of leave to address burnout and introduced a no meeting day once a month. Discovery’s Vitality Group has a no meetings hour daily to allow employees to recharge.

Some companies are offering flexi-leave up to three months a year, and flexi-hours working from anywhere in the world. Other companies have expanded access to online mental health resources or coached employees on how to better support workers dealing with pandemic-related stress.

In addition, companies like Absa, EOH, and Anglo American have created forums around GBV.

All of these initiatives are laudable and to be encouraged, but they also present two important challenges.

The first is that they become a kind of corporate Band-Aid and only address the symptoms of an underlying problem: a company culture that subtly – or sometimes overtly – sees overwork and burnout as badges of honour. In an age where companies are getting more and more lean, employees are taking up more and more slack, and a week off can’t ameliorate the accumulated exhaustion that comes with months of working overly long hours in an always-on setting.

We need to build company cultures that not only take mental wellness seriously, but are supportive of it. And that needs to be driven from the top down, with leaders who not only set an example, but who are humane in their expectations of staff, and lead with compassion and empathy.

Second, it’s no good if companies go to the effort of putting these excellent interventions in place – and employees don’t take advantage of them, because they are wary of exposing their vulnerability. Mental illness still comes with significant stigma, and many don’t feel comfortable sharing their struggles. Some may feel that they will be seen as weak, or poor team players, if they reveal that they are not coping.

And we cannot forget that the pandemic has brought unprecedented bereavement to families across South Africa. Our collective grief will be with us for the foreseeable future, especially where Covid-19 restrictions and safety measures have kept many from taking solace in traditional mourning rituals, and is bound to take its toll.

We need to ensure that organisations become safe places for employees to bring their whole selves to work, and feel that they will not be disadvantaged for sharing their vulnerabilities.

As we ride out the rest of the pandemic and look towards a changed future, we will need to continue to adapt and change – as individuals, and as companies – to the mental wellness challenges that arise, and continue to have these very real, very important conversations.