Even though the Covid-19 pandemic has subsided globally, the widespread negative impact it had on the world’s health systems and economies will linger. Besides the pandemic being a health hazard, it also severely limited human interaction as most people were cloistered in their homes due to a series of lockdowns. Some people lost their jobs and loved ones and many suffered from mental health issues. There was also a phenomenal surge in gender-based violence and experts attributed this to the pandemic.
Mail & Guardian in partnership with Government Employees Medical Scheme (GEMS) on Monday held a webinar to discuss the overall impact of the pandemic on the health and wellness of employees at their various workplaces. Held under the theme “Rediscovering you: health and wellness in a post-pandemic world”, the webinar addressed three fundamental questions:
Award-winning TV and radio broadcast journalist Cathy Mohlahlana steered the discussion and invited the public to send in their questions to the panel. She also conducted a poll on how many employers have established health and wellness programmes in their companies. Panel members included two health experts from GEMS, Dr Stan Moloabi and Dr Vuyo Gqola and an independent health specialist, Sthembiso Pride Mkhwanazi.
Moloabi is a qualified medical practitioner registered with the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA). He is a clinician with vast experience in healthcare funding and is the GEMS Principal Officer.
Gqola is a medical practitioner also registered with the HPCSA. She has worked in various government health institutions, particularly in paediatrics and HIV management. She joined GEMS in 2015, where she now holds the position of Chief Healthcare Officer.
Mkhwanazi is a COMENSA-certified professional coach specialising in mental wellness. She is a transformational coach, business speaker, brand entrepreneur and advertising specialist. She is pursuing neuroscience coaching studies and plans to get her International Coach Federation (ICF) accreditation in coaching in the near future.
Gqola said the issue of health and wellness is a global priority as it is number three of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, which aim to encourage organisations to promote good health and well-being for all ages. Gqola said mental illnesses, which often manifest as anxiety and depression, lead to the disengagement of employees from companies’ activities and also affect productivity. She called for employers to invest in their employees, who should also open up and engage in conversations about their health and well-being.
She said it is difficult to identify mental illness particularly when the person who suffers from it does not speak about it. Gqola cautioned against the stigma associated with mental illness and said employees should feel free to talk about their health issues with their managers. Managers and leaders, she added, should equip themselves with relevant skills on how they can intervene and assist their employees.
“Know your employees,” said Gqola, adding that managers should also take stock of what happens at their companies and not just focus on the deliverables.
Speaking about some examples of the mental health spectrum, Moloabi said mood disorders dominate mental disorders in the workforce. These are largely depression or anxiety. He said employees with these conditions cannot be productive, adding that managers should know and understand their employees so that they can see red flags early on. Mkhwanazi said the employees should also know themselves — “who am I? and under what condition(s) do I thrive and become productive?”
“We need more people-centric leaders who will be in touch with their employees. Employees should also learn how to manoeuvre themselves out of a toxic work environment. Go for counselling or get professional help to overcome these issues. You don’t have to rely on internal assistance — you should also seek outside help,” said Mkhwanazi. She appealed to management to attend leadership coaching sessions to assist them to pick up clues early on when employees are experiencing physical or mental illnesses.
Gqola said managers can design surveys and other tools to solicit views from their employees about what bothers them. She said feedback from the surveys would help inform intervention programmes. She said employers should constantly ask themselves if their work environment is “psychologically safe”.
“Ensure the environment is safe for your employees to express their views without fear or being prejudiced,” said Gqola, adding employers should also create and foster a culture that promotes employees’ health and wellness. Companies must establish a caring organisational culture, she said.
What concrete measures can managers introduce to improve health and wellness? Gqola said managers should ensure that they introduce wellness programmes that are exciting and engaging. They can also invite mental health practitioners to assist employees who may be suffering from any mental health issues. Employers should also align their activities to specific calendar days, such as World Diabetes or World Kidney days, she said. Their planning should incorporate employees’ input and managers should be seen to take these sessions seriously.
Moloabi said managers should attempt to establish a balance between productivity and showing concern for employees’ health.
“A manager who is obsessed with production issues without taking care of the health and wellness of employees wouldn’t achieve much”, said Moloabi. He emphasised the importance of trust and confidence between managers and employees. If there is trust between the two it would be easier for employees to open up and share issues related to their wellness and health issues.
The panel also discussed the issue of malingering and both Moloabi and Gqola said this is a serious concern for most employees. Moloabi said some employees abuse sick leave provisions to such an extent that trust between managers and employees gets eroded. When the employee is genuinely ill, the manager is likely to treat such a report with suspicion.
Gqola added that recent findings showed that one out of three employees report genuine illnesses while two-thirds abuse the system.
She said closer interaction between managers and employees would enable the latter to know whether an employee is genuinely unwell or not
The moderator put Moloabi and Gqola on the spot and asked them how GEMS contributes to the well-being of their members. Gqola replied: “We ensure we constantly engage with various employer departments on how they can improve and promote the health and wellness of their employees.”
She added that they also dedicate specific days to raise awareness about mental health issues and address the stigma around mental illness.
Moloabi said they have designed benefits which would allow members of the scheme to access enhanced mental illness benefits. He said they also have mental health programmes which assist members when they have been booked in at a health facility and need extra days off.
The webinar closed with the moderator sharing the outcomes of the poll on how many employers have established health and wellness programmes in their companies, with 56% saying “yes”, 30% “no” and 12% were “unsure”.
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