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COVID-19 leads public servants to ask for psychological well-being support

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Since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic a year ago, public servants have been requesting psychosocial services such as managing stress, anxiety, dealing with loss, mortality and most recently dealing with anxiety of returning to offices.

These are the observations shared by Public Service and Administration Director-General, Ms Yoliswa Makhasi, at the Department of Health’s World Health Mental Day commemoration webinar on Tuesday.

“Since the pandemic was the declared in March of 2020, there are top five psychosocial services that are being requested by public servants.

“These include dealing with physical distancing and separation from loved ones and colleagues; advise on parenting during lockdown; mental health awareness and managing stress and anxiety; dealing with loss, Mortality and grief due to COVID-19; and most recently, dealing with anxiety related to the likely return to offices and managing teams remotely,” she said.

According to Director-General Makhasi, mental health remains a major challenge in society as it is still clouded by stigma and feelings of shame, which stops people from seeking help for emotional distress.

“We continue to lose a significant number of people due to deaths that could have been prevented, if not for stigma. It has been the experience of many people living with mental illness that disclosing a mental health condition can lead to bullying, name-calling and many other afflictions. This is even worse for mental health workers in public institutions whom we neglect to even provide debriefing sessions for,” she said.

Ms Makhasi further said the attitude society has towards people living with mental illness makes the work of mental healthcare workers to be more difficult, adding that it is even worse when it comes to the workplace.

“We wouldn’t be wrong to attribute this attitude to decreasing productivity, absenteeism, poor work quality, wastage, and even compromised workplace safety. The government suffers significant direct and indirect financial losses, which then affects how the public experience services and therefore, the broad economy.

“Due to stigma, many mental disorders fly below the radar in the workplace, as sufferers try to avoid victimisation and discrimination when it comes to career growth opportunities,” she said.

The South African Association of Social Workers in Private Practice estimated that 50% of workplace accidents are related to substance abuse. An undetected substance abuser can cost the employer about 25% of that person’s wages.

Government have put in place systems and programmes such as the Employee Health and Wellness programmes to address the issues. Public Service Regulations 53 and 54 of 2016, places an obligation on Heads of departments to establish and maintain a safe as well as a healthy work environment for employees. In terms of these regulations, each department is expected to have a policy that promotes the health and well-being of employees.

The Director-General also said what they have noticed following the 2017 Circular on Determinations and Directives on the implementation of the Employee Health and Wellness Strategic Framework.

“We noticed that whilst employees are correctly targeted for support, those officials providing this service are neglected in that there is no specific support provided to mental healthcare workers. We have left mental health care workers on their own.

“To address this situation, the DPSA has initiated a project to review all policies, norms & standards, regulations, circulars and determinations to support professionalisation and ensure that we improve the mobilisation of public resources to support healthcare workers especially as health pandemics such as COVID-19 are becoming more frequent,” she said.

Ms Makhasi said as of end March 2021, GEMS reported that out of about 1. 2 million public servants, about 44 273 (or 3.64%) of officials using the medical aid are on chronic medication to deal with mental health conditions.

She said this clearly shows either reluctance to disclose mental health disabilities due to fears of stigmatisation or even worse, an overwhelming failure to take up these services.