August 28

My body feels safe, what about my mind?

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My body feels safe, what about my mind?

The invite reads:  COVID19 and Mental Health in the South African Workplace

COVID-19 has raised the awareness, for lack of a better term, of the importance of mental health as related to employees (as a subset of the broader population).  

But why now, and will this be a passing phase linked to a pandemic that dies out with it?  

Mental Health in the workplace has historically not received adequate attention - in fact, I’d argue that within the South African work environment it has received no attention.  And when it has received attention it’s a passing awareness session loaded with advice on eating better, sleeping better and exercising.  Becoming more resilient to stress is the focal point with the emphasis on the employee armouring themselves to manage stress in its multivariate forms.

And without fail, the onus lies squarely with the employee to take responsibility for their own mental health.  

Does this approach work though?  And how do we reconcile this with the responsibility of the employer to provide a safe working environment?

Consider this, the 1st and 2nd Industrial Revolutions saw the centralization of workers in factories where their physical attributes were favoured.  The rise of safety legislation focused almost exclusively on the interaction of the labourer with their physical environment.  But the advent of the 3rd IR saw a major shift from factories to offices, and a labour force that was better qualified and predominantly assessed on their mental attributes.  In fact, laborers are now defined as information workers – favoring mental agility over physical agility.

But has HSE kept pace?  

Most employers, if asked, would claim that they have safe working environments as they meet the letter of the law – they have their HSE policies and procedures, and their management committees measure their performance via predetermined performance indicators (while outside the scope of this discussion, the reality between those final numbers presented in papers is often far removed from the reality on the ground).

However, can they claim that our working environments are safe for their employee’s mental health?  How are we capturing this is in our policies and measuring it?  Do we even understand what it means to create a safe mental working environment?

While globally this omission is starting to be recognized and a “new” set of hazards are being defined – Psychosocial risk and stresses – the implementation pace, if ergonomics is anything to go by, does not engender much confidence that mental health is going to receive the attention it needs anytime soon.  (While the 3rd IR has its genesis in the 1950’s, SA’s Occupational Health and Safety Act is still largely biased toward the factory, and the Labour Department is only now looking to release Ergonomic Regulations which will shift some attention to offices.)

 And that is concerning.

Psychosocial risks arise from poor work design, organisation and management, as well as a poor social context of work, and they may result in negative psychological, physical and social outcomes such as work-related stress, burnout or depression.

EU-OSHA

In 2019 the American Heart Association released a roundtable discussion report – Mental Health, a workforce crisis – that convincingly argues that the prevalence of poor mental health in the workplace is widespread and is in fact worsening.  It also makes a strong business case for employers investing in mental health which goes beyond the individual’s responsibility, and recognises the incontrovertible truth that the working environment is a major contributing factor.

We should not have waited for COVID to recognise the importance of mental health in the workplace and we can’t afford to forget about it when COVID passes.  

We have to start asking the difficult question – are we doing enough to keep our employees safe?  And if not, where do we start?  

As business leaders – are you concerned about your employee’s mental health?  What are you doing about it?  

Businesses that plan to survive and be sustainable over the next 10 years will be organizations that make their employee’s mental health their priority.


You may wonder what qualifies an ADHD Coach to talk to Mental Health in the Workplace.  

In my working career my unique challenges exposed me to the darker side of corporate disdain for mental health.  Mental Illness was a weakness, and neurodivergence an unwelcome deviation from the norm.  

However, I passionately believe that employers who "get" the real intent of PPP - Passion, People and Productivity - are the ones who understand that Productivity is only possible by inspiring passion in people in order to make people passionate about their company.  

Leaders I work for understand that I shine the spotlight on their behaviours first.  Passion cannot be mandated - it must be demonstrated authentically and organically.

In my next discussion I will be looking at what those Psychosocial risks are, and why companies, particularly from a South African cultural view, find it difficult to acknowledge their own role in mental health safety.

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About the Author

Shane Ward is a Certified ADHD Life Coach offering support and accountability to those of us who sometimes think and behave differently to what the rest of society would prefer. He identifies as Neurodivergent, ADHD, Agitator, Protector of the Underdog, GDB, and recovered alcoholic.


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