As South Africa and the world settle into a new normal perhaps it is time to admit that while the Covid-19 lockdowns are a thing of the past, we are dealing with another pandemic that started long before the latest coronavirus turned our lives upside down and it shows little sign of abating. We are battling a mental health pandemic and it is crucial that it is taken seriously, writes Jemille Hector, People Manager, Altron Karabina. From a business perspective, companies that do not acknowledge mental health will no doubt feel the after effects, as employees suffer from burnout, become disengaged and resign. There is no way around it: employees are any company’s most important asset and if they have mental health challenges it not only makes their own lives difficult, it is intrinsically tied to the performance of a business.

There’s certainly been a great deal of awareness around the topic in recent years. It is not the taboo it once was, and people feel confident and free to talk about the need to acknowledge and seek help to manage their mental wellness.

South Africa has invested a great deal into the development of policies and procedures around mental health. There is legislation and there is a general willingness, however, the challenge lies in implementation.

Let’s take a moment to consider the wider environment. Firstly, we are part of a wider world that’s still coping with the recovery from a highly disruptive pandemic. Geopolitical challenges, the war in Ukraine, threats of a global recession and supply chain constraints are adding immense stress to people around the world.

In the South African context, we have had to navigate social unrest, flooding, ongoing load shedding, water shortages in some parts of Johannesburg, a drought in the Eastern Cape, a high crime rate and much more. This is not to paint a pessimistic picture, rather the point is to acknowledge that there are external stressors adding to personal and workplace stress.

Businesses, then, find themselves in the precarious position of needing to do what is right and fair for their employees navigating these challenges, while also ensuring that the business meets its targets and makes a profit.

Altron Karabina’s people manager programme and mental first-aiders strategy demonstrates that it really is possible for a business to strive for, and achieve, profitability while ensuring the workforce’s mental wellness is front and centre.

Once the company’s people managers were certified as mental health first-aiders, the business was able to design a 360-degree strategy where managers are there to support staff in times of crises, while also ensuring that business goals are achieved. This experience has allowed us to plot a path of what a successful employee mental health programme should entail.

Firstly, each employee must be treated as a three-dimensional person, with a full appreciation that mental health includes someone’s mental state, financial state, emotional state, physical state and social state. The key, then, is to develop a holistic programme with initiatives around all these aspects of the total person.

Businesses should be proactive and do things such as bringing in external experts – like financial planners – as well as set up internal programmes, whether these be group activities or charity initiatives. Creativity, based on listening to your own workforce and what resonates with them, is key.

Ultimately, the business needs to put together a comprehensive plan to support and assist employees with their mental, emotional, financial, physical and social states. This needs to be followed up with regular check-ins, while the anonymous data one gathers provides useful reporting on the programme’s efficacy.

Perhaps one of the most useful tools is the appreciation that any initiative should have a physical component. So, if the activity is painting at an orphanage, it requires employees to go and paint in person. If it is a time-out to go for walks around the company grounds or in other areas as part of a group, it requires being physically present. This takes an employee out of their stress-filled environments and detaches them from stressors, giving them the opportunity to be present with themselves.

Certainly, from an Altron Karabina perspective, we are lucky to have an amazing campus with beautiful nature and animals. Our Self Care Kilometres Club – where we encourage people to clock up some kilometres on Wednesdays, by running or walking gently and then logging it on an app which is then continually acknowledged – has emphasised the importance of nature and just how much people appreciate being outdoors and around animals and trees.

Any programme and its interventions are only as good as the level of engagement. Businesses would do well to ensure that there is constant awareness and reminders of the programmes that are designed to support staff. We do it through our people manager’s monthly check-ins, updates at all town halls, and internal communication. We measure the impact through monthly and quarterly surveys. It is crucial to keep the initiatives front of mind in the workforce and to measure it so that you know what is working, and where changes need to be made.

Ultimately, managing mental health by promoting wellness programmes and engendering good relationships between people managers and the workforce results in a happier staff contingent. A happy workforce is an engaged workforce, and an engaged workforce delivers business results, as Altron Karabina has discovered first-hand.

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