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Mental health in your business

Article provided by Bonitas Medical Fund

Good mental health in SMMEs is just as important as in a large corporation. We all know healthy employees are happier ones and studies have shown that mental illness is one of the main causes of unhappiness in the workplace. However, it is also a negative contributor to the economy. 970 million people worldwide have a mental health or substance abuse disorder. A recent study by the Global Happiness Council (GHC) shows that mental illness is the main illness among people of working age.

The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns affected people globally, resulting in feelings of isolation, work stress, frustration at rules and regulations, fear for close friends and family and finally a loss of control over your life.

Mental health and the pandemic

During the pandemic, studies show that around 20-25% of patients with pre-existing mental health issues feel they are coping badly or deteriorating. Social distancing, financial burdens, loss of lives/friends/family members/healthcare workers, the impact on children and the elderly is still unfolding. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), depression is a common mental disorder that affects more than 264 million people world-wide. The impact of COVID has only made this worse.

Dr Morgan Mkhatshwa, Head of Operations at Bonitas Medical Fund says, ‘This has a massive effect on employers as they try to cope with keeping their businesses going, preventing job losses, and maintaining a happy workforce. The economic uncertainty, political instability and poor socio-economic conditions in South Africa have also added to the burden of mental health issues in South Africa’.

Mental health in SMMEs

The mental health of employees within SMMEs is often neglected with respect to occupational health research and practice, even though this is the most common work setting in South Africa. It is a challenge for employees to attend face-to-face training or therapy or workshop-style interventions often offered in corporates or larger business. But it is an essential part of the wellbeing of both the people and the company.

In terms of productivity, people who are mentally ill (even for a short period) become seriously unproductive. However, when they are successfully treated, there are substantial gains in output which exceed the cost of interventions. Treating mental health issues could save national income per head by 5% – that equates to billions worldwide.

What is mental illness?

Mental illness is defined as any behavioural or mental pattern that causes significant distress or impairs functioning. It can occur as a once off, be persistent or recur. The common denominator being the debilitating nature of the condition.

It is a medical condition

A mental illness affects the way a person experiences and behaves in the world around them. It is not a sign of weakness or madness and is nothing to be ashamed of. It is a recognised medical condition in the same way as diabetes and high blood pressure. It can affect anyone, regardless of race, religion, income or age. The good news is it’s a condition that that can be managed and treated.

Anxiety disorders and depression are the most common mental health problems but others include eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), bipolar mood disorder, psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia. and personality disorders. Substance abuse, such as drugs and alcohol, is also classified under mental illness.

The link between mental and physical health 

According to Harvard Medical School, poor mental health can negatively impact on physical health, leading to an increased risk of some conditions. Depression has been linked to 67% increased risk of death from heart disease and a 50% increase in risk of death from cancer. This is mainly because people with mental health conditions are less likely to receive the physical healthcare to which they are entitled.

Battling the stigma

The Mental Health Society says that, ‘The social stigma attached to mental health and the discrimination exacerbates patients’ condition. It often prevents people from seeking treatment. And, if they do, makes it harder to recover.’

Dr Mkhatshwa says, ‘Fortunately, increasingly well-known and influential people who are suffering from, or have overcome mental illness, are being more open and talking about it.  This will go a long way to debunk myths, negativity, discrimination and judgement. We all need to understand mental illness and learn to be supportive and understanding. Above all, we need to ensure the people get the help they need.’

Recognising the signs

These can vary but, in general, you may find you, your loved one, family member or friend or employee experiencing any of these:

  • Being frequently sad, depressed and gloomy for long periods
  • Feeling overwhelmed by life’s problems
  • Major changes in eating habits resulting in weight loss or gain
  • Struggling to concentrate and make decisions
  • Loss of energy and lack of motivation
  • Constant stress and anxiety over work, finances, life, friends and family
  • Emotionally distant
  • Frequently tearful
  • Having difficulty sleeping or sleeping more than usual
  • Loss of interest in activities
  • Being easily irritated and more aggressive than usual
  • Having thoughts of death or suicide
  • Drug or alcohol abuse may also be a sign of underlying mental illness

Help is at hand

If you or someone you know, recognise or experience any signs of mental illness; it is important to seek help as soon as possible. Go and see your doctor, a psychologist or even a social worker – support and assistance is available.

There are specialised mental health programmes in place through most medical aids and most mental illnesses can be effectively treated by health professionals and community-based services or NGOs. This may include access to medication, therapy and counselling. 

The Mental Health Programme (MHP) from Bonitas, which forms part of the Fund’s Managed Care initiatives is aimed at improving quality of life and empowering people with mental health issues to manage their condition. It is education driven and offers support for loved ones too.

‘Mental illness is not a sign of weakness and cannot be wished away,’ says Dr Mkhatshwa. ‘We can’t expect someone to ‘pull themselves together’, they simply cannot.  But with the right support and help, symptoms will be relieved and the recovery rate is encouraging with patients can get back to being happier, more productive members of society.’

BonitasMedical Fund is a proud Partner of the NSBC