Workers' mental health as vital as physical, economic welfare

In this uncommon time, mental illnesses such as anxiety and stress can be more prevalent and can be exacerbated by Covid-19, the writer says.
In this uncommon time, mental illnesses such as anxiety and stress can be more prevalent and can be exacerbated by Covid-19, the writer says.
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The Directive on Occupational Health and Safety Measures in Workplaces was published in the Government Gazette on April 29 2020.

Although it mainly aims to provide guidelines to employers to protect the physical health and safety of workers and to prevent the spread of the virus, the mental well-being and health of workers should not be lost sight of - especially not in SA where one in six people suffer from some form of mental illness.

So, while the emphasis is on our physical and economic well-being, the current and future emotional well-being of employees should not be forgotten. Many employees are experiencing increased levels of anxiety and concern about the possibility of infection as well as current and future job losses.

In this uncommon time, mental illnesses such as anxiety, stress, loneliness, depression, frustration and self-harm can be more prevalent and can be exacerbated by Covid-19.

Although there are several self-care guidelines on emotional well-being, such mental illnesses may implicate the employer - on the one hand, the emotional illness can negatively impact the job ability of the employee (which can, in turn, lead to further problems such as potential dismissal due to incompetence), and on the other hand, the workplace or environment can contribute to the mental illness.

Where does the employer then fit into the picture? According to the preamble to the said directive, as well as articles 8 and 9 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act, the employer must maintain a work environment that is safe and without health risks for employees or other persons affected by the same work activities. It could thus be argued that this general obligation also contains aspects of mental health.

An employer must therefore be careful that the way in which the business is conducted does not, for example, contribute to the anxiety and stress-related emotions of employers or other stakeholders. An employer should also consider and address the situation before an employee is, for instance, dismissed on the grounds of incapacity (caused by Covid-19-related mental illness).

Neglecting Covid-19 mental symptoms is potential discrimination. Paragraph 16.4 of the directive also requires employers to inform their employees that they should not report for work if they experience any Covid-19 symptoms, and that they should take paid sick leave.

Paragraph 23.4 stipulates that if an employee's sick leave is exhausted, the employee can apply with the UIF for illness benefits in terms of the "Covid-19 Temporary Employer Relief Scheme".

And don't forget about the emotional crisis. South Africa, like the rest of the world, is experiencing a crisis on many different levels. And although the health crisis and the economic crisis (and the associated job losses) are definitely taking precedence, we perhaps need to sit back for a moment and not forget about the emotional crisis.

Everyone agrees that a healthy body houses a healthy mind; everyone agrees that mental illness can have the same draconic consequences as physical illness; everyone agrees that humankind should care for one another and have each other's interests at heart.

And although there are many different ways in which employees can take care of their own mental health during this (coronavirus) time, employers must guard against allowing mental illness to yield to physical illness.

*Conradie is a lecturer in the department of mercantile law and programme director in the centre for labour law at the University of the Free State

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