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Time to talk mental illness, wellness and safe spaces in the office

As the world emerges from the novel Covid-19 pandemic to altered home and work lives, the topic of mental health is finally taking its place and it’s one that needs ongoing discussion, compassion and solutions, particularly in the workplace, says Michelle Moss: Director: Assessments at Signium Africa.

Says Moss: “Firstly, it’s vital to understand what mental health is, and that it can affect anyone at any time in their lives. We are all at risk, at some point, of the possibility of being affected personally or via a family member, friend or colleague so being educated about mental health and able to talk about it is imperative.

“The impact of the pandemic will be felt for some time to come, and has highlighted mental health issues more than ever. While the scope of mental health is broad, our focus here will be on the workplace and how HR managers can provide solutions for employees suffering from or affected by mental health matters.”

Moss cites The World Health Organization (WHO), which defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which an individual realises his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community,” she notes, adding that HR managers have access to various interventions that help them understand mental health issues, note red-flag behaviours and learn how to encourage a culture of psychological safety.

Creating a culture of acceptance

According to Moss, many people still feel there is a stigma attached to anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses, which prevents them from talking about what they’re experiencing. “This is particularly true of the workplace, where some may feel discussing such personal afflictions may negatively impact their careers or promotion opportunities.”

The key is for HR managers to work with the C-Suite and other managers to create a culture of acceptance in which employees feel safe to speak up. “Mental health refers to overall wellbeing, including cognitive, behavioral and emotional, which governs how we feel, think and behave.

“Creating a culture of psychological safety companywide means the company becomes a place of tolerance and realistic expectations,” Moss says. “By knowing what signs to look for in troubled colleagues and taking the appropriate action, organisations can not only alleviate immense suffering, but also ensure productivity is maintained, creativity is encouraged and competitive edge is sustained.”

Red flags in the workplace

A number of studies on mental health have emerged since the onset of Covid-19. A McKinsey article from 8 December 2020, titled ‘Mental health in the workplace: The coming revolution1’ states that “preexisting mental health challenges have been exacerbated by the impact of the COVID-19 crisis. Based on analysis by McKinsey, COVID-19 could result in a potential 50 percent increase in the prevalence of behavioral health conditions.”

Noting and attending to red flags is vital, Moss says. “When managers understand how anxiety, panic attacks, depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) present, they’re able to facilitate an appropriate solution. It’s important, however, that managers seek professional help and don’t try to diagnose employees by behaviour.

“Every individual is different and each may present with different symptoms. Companies would do well to sign up to an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) if they do not have their own. Proper and prompt diagnosis is key,” she says, noting some of the more obvious signs to look out for, including:

  • Increased absenteeism
  • Isolation from colleagues
  • Lethargy
  • Uncharacteristic repeated making of mistakes
  • Not enjoying work or events they previously enjoyed
  • Evident lack of sleep
  • Substance abuse

“To mitigate the impact of this on both your employees and your business, creating a safe space to talk to staff will offer them a way out of their distress and enable HR managers to monitor progress and provide positive feedback,” Moss asserts.

When HR managers want to help

While proper diagnosis of mental illness is crucial to real assistance, some employees may just be going through a difficult patch. “In any event,” says Moss, “a company that gives its managers the ability to note when employees are battling and take the appropriate action will ultimately be a company that retains staff members and achieves maximum productivity while minimising unnecessary stress.”

So, what basics should the HR manager know? “If approached, talk to your colleague with compassion and interest, guiding them to tell you what they need. Try not to voice any opinions on their possible condition – that should be left to medical professionals,” Moss asserts. “Refer them to your company EAP or ensure you have the contact details of organisations dedicated to assisting, such as LifeLine, or the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG).”

Understand that the way people speak in the workplace shapes company culture. “Watch for unhelpful and dismissive words and tones, to keep that safety zone available to staff to call on HR for assistance,” she says. “It may be very helpful to host speakers who have overcome mental health issues - or are dealing with them – at a monthly staff get together. Alternatively, publish self help tips in your company newsletter, and links to TED Talks, podcasts and other motivational or uplifting advice.”

Finally, Moss highlights the importance of taking mental health problems seriously: “It is standard among medical practitioners in the field of mental health to note that the outcome of untreated depression could lead to suicide. While depression must be diagnosed and dealt with only by professionals, other difficulties can be alleviated largely by getting assistance at work and having access to professional help.

“The days of having to hide how we’re feeling mentally, emotionally and physically should be long gone – and HR managers can be significant part of creating workplaces that understand suffering, while encouraging mental wellness across the board.”

Reference: ‘Mental health in the workplace: The coming revolution1’ -



Michelle Moss is Director: Assessments at Signium Africa and is also a registered industrial psychologist.

Signium Africa (previously Talent Africa) is a leading South African-based executive search and talent management company servicing sub-Saharan Africa.


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