[Column] Garsen Naidu: Employee mental health during crisis, the role of leadership
28-08-2020 16:23:00 | by: Pie Kamau | hits: 7234 | Tags:

Mental health is said to be a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, to cope with the normal stresses of life, work productively, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.

As the whole world navigates a global pandemic, one never before faced in recent history, levels of stress, anxiety and depression have heightened. These factors have a huge bearing on mental health. Poor mental health of employees leads to poor performance which in turn impacts productivity.

Employees’ stress levels are no better

Before remote working became the norm, many may have imagined the experience of working from home to be more relaxed and less stressful. The workplace can be a high pressure and demanding environment and returning home at the end of the day was something to look forward to as home offers a place of rest and comfort.

And yet, people's personal space transformed to include their work space as well. With the merging of the two, it soon became apparent that working from home did not mean one could escape the stresses of work. The perception that remote working would be less stressful is largely false, research has found. According to Remote Working in South Africa 2020, a study conducted among 400 enterprises by World Wide Worx for Cisco South Africa, two-thirds (64%) of IT decision-makers feel that it does not lead to less stress for employees.

Fear and anxiety over job security and economic uncertainty

Remaining productive is something many desperately want in a time like this when job cuts are becoming more common. In only a few months, 3 million jobs have been reported to have been lost in South Africa – an unprecedented number. This has had a devastating impact on the economy and the welfare of the people. The alarming statistic alone is cause for immense fear and anxiety for the currently employed workforce.

Employees are constantly worried about job security. The scale of the impact of COVID-19 has brought considerable uncertainty. Not knowing whether your next paycheck will be your last or how soon you could be able to find employment if needed is a stress driver for many people, coupled with a struggling economy whose recovery is uncertain. 

External factors contribute to remote working stress

External factors due to circumstances related to COVID-19 – while they may not even be related to work itself – have had a huge impact on remote working. The shift to working remotely and the reality of lockdown forced people to juggle multiple responsibilities. For instance, those who are parents may have had added pressure of educating and taking care of the home, whilst kids are also home-based. All the while, getting to spend time with children during the work day was considered a major success factor for remote working, according to the Remote Working in South Africa 2020 research study.

Compassionate leadership is a necessity for employee mental health

Employee stress and anxiety is at an all-time high. Responsible and compassionate leadership has never been more important. Organisations which uphold the value of their employees now more than ever have to put their money where their mouth is.

By being transparent, offering support and talking about mental health issues, organisations can help employees alleviate stress and pressure from work as they probably already face the same in their personal lives.

A company is its people and the wellbeing of employees always comes first at Cisco. The rise of mental health issues, in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, was not a sudden wake up call for Cisco’s. The company has been prioritising mental health wellness through its initiatives years before.

As we adapt to living under a pandemic, Cisco leadership continues to invite experts to its regular check-in sessions with employees to help them maintain their mental welling being.  The company also put in place various initiatives which seek to expand access to digital health and mental health services, not only for its employees but to their family and friends too.

The Telemental Health initiative for instance, helps connect people to mental health professionals virtually, removing the geographical and physical barriers that prevent access. In addition, Cisco’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP), which offers an emotional crisis and support help line to help manage COVID-19 stress and anxiety, was extended to family and friends of Cisco employees.

In efforts to give employees rest amid the stress and exhaustion caused by the pandemic, Cisco introduced “A Day for Me”, an initiative encouraging all workers to take the day off collectively on May 22nd. Subsequently, at the height of the emotionally taxing Black Lives Matter protest action, Cisco declared “Juneteenth’’ a corporate holiday for all across Cisco employees.  Cisco Leadership urged the world to take time to reflect and celebrate June 19th as it signified a crucial moment in the history of Black Americans. Yet again, Cisco granted another day off to employees on August 28th.

2020 has been a highly disruptive year filled with many lows and limited highs. The events of this year have required strong mental resilience and mental health is, therefore, extremely important. Humanity has always survived crises like pandemics and will undoubtedly rise above this. It’s not just about physical health, mental health and stress management are critical.

Garsen Naidu is the Country Manager at Cisco, South Africa