Corporate Wellness Week: South Africa’s untreated mental health crisis is a burden on the economy and workforce, says expert

Employers must work towards burnout prevention and lead by example and advocate self-care and guarantee anonymity and confidentiality for employees. Picture by Christina @

Employers must work towards burnout prevention and lead by example and advocate self-care and guarantee anonymity and confidentiality for employees. Picture by Christina @

Published Jul 5, 2023


South Africa is facing an economic crisis caused by unaddressed mental health conditions, with health economists estimating a staggering cost of R161 billion per year.

These soaring figures result from lost workdays, presenteeism (being physically present but mentally unwell), and premature mortality.

Shockingly, the Mental State of the World 2022 report ranked South Africa at the bottom of the mental health well-being scale, comparing 34 countries worldwide.

Additionally, the World Mental Health Report 2022 revealed a distressing rise of over 25% in anxiety and depressive disorders during the initial year of the global pandemic.

Fast forward to today, three years post-COVID-19, and the nation finds itself grappling with unprecedented levels of burnout, anxiety, and depression.

This toxic combination has resulted in a workforce plagued by stress, anxiety, and mental illness, leading to severe repercussions for businesses’ financial well-being.

In recognition of this alarming trend, Corporate Mental Health Week, observed from July 4 to 8, emerges as a pivotal moment to shed light on the issue and call for action.

Professor Renata Schoeman, a leading expert in healthcare leadership at the esteemed Stellenbosch Business School, emphasises the urgent need for organisations to prioritise and safeguard their employees’ mental health and well-being.

Sadly, only a handful of companies have made any significant effort to address this pressing matter as part of their attraction and retention strategies.

She asserts employees are increasingly seeking workplaces where management genuinely cares about their emotional well-being as much as their productivity.

Highlighting that, extensive research has consistently shown that employees who receive proper emotional support are happier, experience less stress and anxiety, and show heightened creativity and productivity.

Such positive factors directly contribute to lower staff turnover rates and reduced conflicts within the workplace.

“The pandemic forced us all to adapt to working from home overnight and left hybrid working in its wake as a new model for doing business. Combining both working remotely and in-office has given rise to several benefits but also risks to mental health.

“If the risks are left unaddressed it could have serious consequences for organisations if they don’t actively adapt their Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs), to support their workforce through these changing times,” she said.

She added: “Hybrid work provides flexibility with more freedom for employees to manage their work and personal schedules, and less time spent in traffic, reducing stress levels and enhancing work-life balance - essential components of maintaining good mental health.”

The disadvantages of hybrid working, according to Prof. Schoeman, outweigh the benefits and further blur the lines between work and home life if they are not proactively addressed by organisations.

Employees may find it difficult to recharge, relax, and differentiate between work-related stressors and personal time, which may contribute to burnout, especially if the organisation’s culture encourages being “always on” and requires employees to be available and responsive to requests at all times.

“Working remotely can also lead to social isolation and reduced interpersonal connections, causing a disconnection from colleagues, increased stress levels and poor decision making.

“It can jeopardise career progression in that promotions are not only evaluated based on work performance but also their people and management skills, and how they collaborate within a team.”

Prof Schoeman noted that hybrid work models are likely to continue and evolve, and as such, organisations need to proactively support mental health by implementing hybrid work environments.

“Organisations need to adapt their EAPs service with additional focus on preventative education, changing the company culture to avoid burnout and adopt a holistic approach to wellbeing that equips employees to manage the challenges of the new ways of working post the pandemic.”

In addition to providing wellness and financial support, South African companies must take a comprehensive approach to address the nation’s alarming mental health crisis.

Experts suggest implementing the following measures to promote a supportive work environment and prioritise employee well-being: changing the organisational culture to promote work/life balance, expanding mental health benefits, access to health tech apps, online therapy and remote mental health appointment, reducing stigma, burnout prevention and lead by example and advocate self-care and guarantee anonymity and confidentiality for employees.

Mental health illness has significant personal, organisational and societal costs, and unless organisations make mental health issues a strategic priority, these costs are set to increase.

“Prevention is the best strategy to follow as it avoids the downward spiral into potential disability, and promoted a happier, healthier society,” said Professor Schoeman.