Debt - one of the biggest healthcare risks to South Africa’s workforce
Debt is one of the biggest healthcare risks to SA’s workforce and it puts company performance at risk. MD of Workforce Healthcare, Dr Richard Malkin says, “In dealing with 34 000 employees nationally, we have seen that rising debt often leads to staff members developing physical and mental health problems, which puts companies at risk of reduced productivity and fraud.
“If left unchecked, these employees spend more time at work trying to dig themselves out of debt, only to find themselves in more debt and at further risk for health problems. In industrial, mining and manufacturing environments, blue collar workers that are not coping financially also become more vulnerable to accidents and injury.”
Workforce Healthcare offers integrated employee wellness and assistance programmes as well as occupational and primary healthcare services to a large client base of public and private companies across South Africa. Malkin continues, “We find that people under financial stress tend to experience health problems in the short-term due to raised cortisol levels. Their concentration and memory are affected and work performance plummets. In the longer term, this stress increases the risk of heart disease, stroke and digestive problems and can exacerbate diseases like depression and diabetes. We also deal with presenteeism, being present but not working or producing anything.”
Nevania Naidoo, general manager of employee wellness at Workforce Healthcare, explains, “We noticed that absenteeism on the 25th and first of every month was increasing- these dates coincide with pay day. We realised that besides the negative effects of financial strain on mental and physical health, loan sharks were waiting at company premises to get their money back including exorbitant interest. In certain cases, the loan sharks are fellow colleagues of those experiencing financial strain and therefore the only way to avoid them is to stay absent from work.”
Naidoo says that Workforce Healthcare has put a proactive system in place to gauge and deal with financial stress as soon as possible. “Payroll departments are the first to realise that an employee is financially stressed as garnishee and maintenance orders come off salaries. Payroll will pick up an issue well before a manager has performance concerns. If managed proactively and sensitively, we can assist employees to build better financial health and minimise mental and physical health problems. This reduces the negative impact on employee productivity and performance.”
Naidoo outlines the steps that are taken once payroll has informed them that an employee may be under financial strain: “Upon receipt of the referral form, we have psychologists and social workers that make the first call to the employee and establish whether she or he has given the company consent to assist them with their financial recovery. Once we have informed consent, a psycho-social assessment is made. A programme of financial and emotional support is put in place, with medical teams consulted when necessary. Support can be either telephonic or face-to-face and depends on the severity of the situation.”
Naidoo explains that financial advice is centred around three months’ bank statements and a list of monthly expenses. “We then work with the employee to budget in advance, to reduce expenditure and pay off loans. In some cases, formal debt counselling is proposed and we help to reduce the number of garnishee orders.”
Naidoo adds that indebtedness is not always related to income, and that regardless of income bracket, anyone can owe more than they earn. People in financial roles can be tempted into defrauding their employers. “We therefore encourage employers to make sure staff with access to billing and accounting systems are financially healthy. Before promoting people in these roles into higher positions, they should be assessed for financial health.”
Malkin concludes, “Employers can help return staff to financial wellness which will impact positively on their outlook and delivery at work. Sadly, when financial distress is not managed, it can also result in suicide.”
Workforce Healthcare looks after 34 000 employees nationally by offering a range of fully integrated employee wellness and assistance programmes, including emotional, psychological and financial support, as well as occupational and primary healthcare services.