South Africa’s workforce is facing a mental health crisis as employees work longer and harder due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown, says Dr Brenda Didi-Quvane, chief risk officer at Momentum Multiply.
While corporate South Africa patted itself on the back for moving quickly shifting its workforce online, the rapid change has come at a high societal cost, she said.
Didi-Quvane cited data from The Economist, which shows that South Africans worked just over six and a half hours a day leading up to the pandemic.
However, since moving to work from home, this number has increased by an additional 38 minutes to over seven hours a day.
“Because we can work from anywhere, we land up working any time. The Economist cited a study that looked at how much longer people in certain countries were working due to the pandemic. South African workers rank high, illustrating that we’ve been putting in more work hours a day compared to other countries,” she said.
“On the face of it, it doesn’t sound that bad – what’s an extra 38 minutes a day? But over a working week that’s an additional three hours and over the course of a month, we’re talking about an extra 12 hours – a full working day and a half.”
Didi-Quvane said that the pandemic has blurred the previously well-defined lines between work and home.
“Added to this, workers are all dealing with the constant anxiety associated with the pandemic, the stress of protecting ourselves and our families from infection, and various forms of pressure as a result of ongoing lockdowns.
“In the weeks following the announcement of the national hard lockdown in March 2020, Lifeline South Africa recorded over 4,000 calls a day — they usually receive this many calls over the course of a week. Meanwhile, calls to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) more than doubled.”
As with all risk, the best way to protect oneself is by trying to mitigate the risk in the first place, said Didi-Quvane. “While often easier said than done, making sure there is a clear distinction between work and home will go a long way towards alleviating some of the stresses associated with never switching off.
“Many of us may actually miss our daily commute to the office – a time to breathe and to reflect. Now we have to be more deliberate about carving out this time for ourselves.”
First and foremost, organisations need to define what flexible working means to them, Didi-Quvane said.
She added that it would not be an option for some, and then they will need to clearly communicate their reasons for this to their employees to ensure their buy-in.
“My sense though is that most companies will embrace an element of flexibility post-pandemic. “Recent research by Momentum Corporate shows that around half of the organisations surveyed are planning for their employees to return to their worksites, while 44% plan to adopt a hybrid model.”
Research from Afriforte shows that half of the employees surveyed would like to continue working from home after the pandemic, while 41% are keen on a hybrid work model. Only 4% would like to return to the worksite.
“Adopting a more flexible working model will come with both risks and opportunities, both of which will need to be effectively managed and communicated to employees,” Didi-Quvane said.
“Good communication will help address some of the employees’ mental strain associated with the uncertainty of what the working world is going to look like from here on out.”
She said it would ultimately be up to individual corporates to decide whether to adopt a 100% flexible model or whether a hybrid solution would work best.
“Part of the consideration will be which model provides the best support to employees while also fostering productivity, enabling flexibility and effective risk management. Achieving this will add genuine value to employees.”