The Covid-19 crisis elicited a collective cri de coeur from society, as rampant job losses, financial and existential insecurity, and hard lockdowns took their toll. Mental health was foregrounded as never before. For those working remotely, either alone and isolated or overwhelmed by work-life-parenting demands, hard conversations about mental health in the workplace became imperative.

Crisis calls for conversations and openness, and Dr Mthenjane, clinical psychologist, human capital strategist and managing director of The Space Between Us, is determined to have a candid one about mental health in the world of work. “Our purpose is to get to a world where mental health is everybody’s business, where it’s understood as something as basic as brushing your teeth. We need to see support for mental wellbeing as a core element of helping you succeed in your world,” she said.

Workers’ personal lives and mental health issues can no longer be ‘left at the door’

On average, 36 workdays are lost to each mental health incident in the workplace. Some 26.5% of South African employees will be diagnosed with mental health issues, but only a small percentage of those will seek help. The reasons behind the resistance? Stigma and social censure.

And this censure, says Dr Mthenjane, operates at a systemic and institutional level – a mere five percent of our national health budget is allocated to mental health, and a good 65 to 70 percent of that goes towards short-term rather than long-term solutions and support. That figure has not shifted in the wake of the pandemic, despite the fact that we have seen an exponential rise in post-traumatic stress, burnout, gender-based violence, and child abuse – and these are all on the increase.

According to Dr Mthenjane, a lack of understanding is at the root of this failure to engender social acceptance and strategic action. “Mental health goes unrecognised and unaddressed. Part of the reason for this is that we fail to understand how the brain works. For example, when someone sees creatures crawling on the wall, we don’t see this as a symptom of paranoid schizophrenia; rather, we view it as subjective and wrong – and so we make a moral judgment about it. We look at it from the perspective of ‘you can control this, and if you can’t, you are weak, lazy or possessed’,” she pointed out.

We fear what we can’t see, she added, and so we label mental illness as dangerous. This, in turn, leads to shame and denial in mental health sufferers and, as a result, they do not disclose their condition nor seek the therapeutic help they need.

Some employers do not help that much. Workers are encouraged to leave their problems at the door when they come to work, as if our personal and professional lives can be neatly cordoned off. But the pandemic has collapsed these boundaries – so how are employers addressing that?

Strong leadership and relationships are key to wellness

For Dr Mthenjane, leaders are much like parents – they set the tone for the culture and establish the rules of engagement. They determine how people treat each other, whether talent is taken seriously, and how the human resources department is viewed. As such, they have three primary roles to play. They need to demonstrate vulnerability and share their own stories; they need to create a culture of connection; and they need to invest in workplace training and sensitivity. Most importantly, they need to model healthy behaviour and demonstrate that self-care needs to be prioritised.

For Dr Mthenjane, the solution lies in relationship building. She believes that the threads that form the fabric of society begin with strong committed relationships: “Relationships define us and are part of good mental health. Relationships are the only place where, if the connection to other people is strong, you are able to see that your colleague’s behaviour is different – when they’re silent, rather than smiling.”

To build back better, she says, we need to stop asking questions like ‘are you okay?’. “‘What kind of support do you need today?’ is the better question,” she says. “Leaders need to ask the right questions and really listen.”

All healthy relationships are rooted in open communication. “We need to create a common language amongst employers and teams, and start decreasing the fear they have when they talk about mental illness,” Dr Mthenjane concluded.

Written by Loren Anthony

Image: Screen capture of Linda Mthenjane