SPEECHES: Opening address by the Deputy Minister for the Public Service and Administration, Honourable Sindisiwe Chikunga, MP, during the webinar on mental health in the public service

Date: 28 Jul 2020

Programme Director & Chief Executive Officer of Proactive Health Solutions - Dr Fundile Nyathi

Director-General of the Department of Public Service and Administration, Ms Yoliswa Makhasi

Specialist Psychiatrist, Professor Z. Zingela

Gauteng Province Department of Health OMH Expert, Dr Sipho Senabe

Senior Management members

Public Service Employees across the three spheres of Government

Our esteemed guests who are joining us in online platforms

Members of the Media present

Ladies and Gentlemen

Introduction

It is indeed a privilege to be part of this important discussion on the impact of the COVID 19 on the mental health of Public Servants and how the Public Service can provide care and support programmes to the affected Public Servants.

Programme Director, I should from the onset acknowledge that, we are holding this Webinar, during the month of July which is commemorated by the South African Federation for Mental Health as the Mental Health month, which coincide with the birthday of Madiba.

In this very significant month, we have seen nations of the world rolling up their sleeves to make a difference, as we celebrated the International Mandela Day. Our former President Mandela, cared for everyone irrespective of their background and status. It is important that as we discuss the topic of this Webinar, we take heed of Madiba’s decorum in treating each other, especially those among us suffering from various mental disorders.

Programme Director;

I must express our sincere condolences to the all families who have lost their loved ones who served in the Public Service. We also wish those who are infected a speedy recovery.

Ladies and gentlemen; the World Health Organization (WHO), defines mental health as, “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community”.

Domestically, the Mental Health Care Act 17 of 2002, defines mental health status to mean a level of mental well-being of an individual as affected by physical, social and psychological factors and which may result in a psychiatric diagnosis;

The same Mental Health Care Act defines Mental illness as a positive diagnosis of a mental health related illness in terms of a diagnostic criteria, made by a mental health practitioner authorised to make such diagnosis.

WHY DOES MENTAL HEALTH MATTER IN THE WORKPLACE?

According to the World Health Organisation, the average person spends at least a third of their adult life in the workplace. It is thus important that the workplace is somewhere that employees can function at their peak working productively and fruitfully.

A workplace is important because it can either contribute positively to a person’s mental health or exacerbate an existing problem or may even contribute to the development of a mental health problem.

It is thus important that employers as part of their employee health and wellness agenda, should put in place programmes to promote the mental health and wellness of workers and must have mechanisms, to ensure that mental health problems are prevented, or detected early , diagnosed, and effectively treated.

What should always be emphasised is that mental illness is an illness like any other physical illness and can be prevented. When you happen to have a case of mental illness, it can be treated, but it can also be controlled in cases where it cannot be cured.

1. PREVENTATIVE MEASURES

The Public Service is the biggest employer in South Africa. The public servant come from a society with its own challenges. Currently COVID – 19 has exposed our vulnerability as employers and employees. It has tested our physical and mental health, those who had pre-existing conditions of mental health may find themselves predisposed to severe levels of mental health conditions during COVID – 19.

The Public Service has taken strain during this time as a number of public servants are frontline workers and are as affected as all citizens. As of 27 July 2020, there are 187 727 GEMS members in the Public Service who have tested, of this number there are 43 209 positive cases, and 699 fatalities. The percentage of men public servants affected by COVID 19 is 32,5% while women public servants are sitting at 67,5%.

Ladies and gentlemen; preventative measures of mental disorders include, but not limited to, health education, screening, counselling, Stress Management, Managing Change and other wellness promotion strategies.

These preventative strategies are amongst the purposes why Employee Health and Wellness was established and institutionalized in the Public Service.

As we, currently find ourselves in an abnormal COVID 19 pandemic reality, Employee Health and Wellness is responsible to educate and bring awareness to the Public Service employees on what COVID 19 pandemic is? How to prevent, detect, as well as measures to treat symptoms and how to de-stigmatize it. Some of the required interventions are being implemented, and we do need to measure their impact.

Our Public Servants come into contact with people who are potential carriers of the virus. These experiences expose them to mental conditions such as fear, anxiety and even depression.

The mental impact of the above experiences translate into many mental illnesses if not prevented, not early detected or diagnosed and treated.

These have a direct impact on workplaces through increased absenteeism, reduced productivity and increased costs. What is of apprehension, is that because of stigma and discrimination attached to mental illness very few South Africans including Public Servants seek treatment for their mental conditions.

This means, we need conscious Employees Health and Wellness officials, who are able from time to time to measure the health and wellness of the employees in their departments. It means we need managers, who are able to detect concerning changes in their subordinates and intervene timeously to prevent unnecessary mental health conditions. More, than anything else, we need managers who know how to create a healthy workplace environments as well as subordinates who respect their managers.

It should be noted that, the Employee Health Wellness (EHW) services are identified as one of the essential services that are available during the lockdown period. This is done in order to provide continuous support to public service employees particularly those who are at the frontline of the fight against the pandemic.

The DPSA provides support to national and provincial departments through capacity building workshops that are conducted on an annual basis, and targeting individual support to departments, related to the implementation of Mental Health Programmes in the workplace.

The DPSA also conducts audits in all the national and provincial departments, in order to identify struggling departments and offer interventions timeously.

2. EARLY DETECTION AND DIAGNOSIS MEASURES

Programme Director; the truth is, the normalcy change as well as stress challenges experienced as a result of the pandemic, continue to cause an increased levels of anxiety and fear .

According to data provided by the GEMS, as the main medical aide scheme covering the majority of Public Servants, mental disease is the fourth condition affecting Public Servants after Hypertension, Diabetes Mellitus and Hyperlipidaemia.

Mental health issues affect at least 5% of employees in the Public Service.

Further to this, data from Policy on Ill-Heath, Incapacity and Early Retirement (PILIR) Reports (2016 - 2018) reports, indicate that the majority of PILIR applicants were suffering from Mental Disorders which are the highest affecting the majority of the applicants within the Public Service.

3. TREATMENT METHODS

It is evident that mental health has been a cause for concern in the Public Service even before the advent of COVID-19. With the pandemic, the situation might have worsened especially among frontline and essential services employees. It is therefore imperative to strengthen the existing psycho-social interventions in the Public Service.

The stress caused by the physical visible symptoms of coughing, headaches, respiratory challenges and other identified symptoms, can never be compared to the psychological and emotional scars which are invisible, but could later translate to mental health challenges. As the Public Service through our Employee Health and Wellness, we must gear up early treatment mechanisms. More so in this challenging period of COVID-19, the employer has to ensure the maximum implementation of strategies addressed in institutionalized three pillars namely:

    • Occupational Health

    • Occupational Hygiene; and

    • Wellness Management

TREATMENT RESPONSE BY THE PUBLIC SERVICE

Programme Director; the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it, a range of issues regarding added pressures on mental health. The Employee Health and Wellness (EHW) Strategic Framework for the Public Service caters for the provision of psychosocial support in the Public Service.

DPSA have had to look at the options of Remote Working for public servants, which lends itself to approximately 35% of jobs on office based environments, lending themselves to such options.

To our Public Servants, allow me to reiterate that the Wellness Management Policy for the Public Service, Employee Health and Wellness Practitioners in the Departments are available to help you and they will continue to offer psychosocial or counselling services should they be required during the lockdown period. Let us never hesitate to seek help when we feel the need, mental illness, is an illness like other illnesses.

The late Isithwalandwe, Baba uMlangeni, once said:

“One of the biggest prisons we were afraid of being locked up in, was the jail of ignorance. We had to demand to have access to education, a fight that was fought over a period of three years until it was granted in 1967.”. As we continue to fight different struggles in our lifetime, the words of Bab’ uMlangeni profoundly resonate, reminding us never to lose sight of fighting against the stigma and discrimination attached to mental illness. We must never be ignorant to the importance of Mental Health Education and awareness in the Public Service and our society at large. We should not treat mental health conditions any differently compared to other illnesses or diseases.

IN CONCLUSION

We encourage public servants, to observe all COVID 19 safety measures, that is wash your hands and sanitize regularly, wear face masks and observe of social distancing in offices. Managers must ensure availability and correct use of personal protective equipment by all employees.

As I conclude, I must state that it is our primary objective to ensure that our public servants continue to be in a state of well-being where they can realize their own abilities, cope with the normal stresses of life, work productively and fruitfully, and make a significant contribution to their communities.

As the Public Servants, we are also members of society and communities. We are committed to serving the people of South Africa, because WE BELONG, WE CARE AND WE SERVE.

God Bless South Africa.

I thank you.


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