Ina Opperman

By Ina Opperman

Business Journalist


Mental health in the workplace: Is it empowering or rescuing?

Who do you talk to at work when everything becomes to much for you and you fear for your mental health?


Mental health challenges have reached a new global high, with 42% of adults worldwide saying they feel a lot of worry, 41% reporting being stressed, and 28% experiencing unhappiness.

Burnout is also on the increase, with 49% of people suffering from these symptoms at work.

Hybrid working also adds to people’s stress by increasing a sense of isolation, with the fear and uncertainty of the modern world making us ever more anxious, says Sarah Rice, chief people officer at Skynamo.

Mental health in the workplace

Rice says with mental health challenges now the norm among employees across all organisational levels, people are talking about mental health at work more than ever before.

However, while this is an important step in the right direction – especially in terms of reducing stigma and getting help – many employees typically end up confiding in a manager who is not formally trained to manage this kind of challenge.

Rice ascribes this to the fact that people do not have the kinds of relationships that we used to have with our family doctors or religious leaders anymore.

“We have lost our extended community support networks, losing all the old ways of managing mental health or discomfort we used to have”.

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Turning to managers

As our managers are in charge of us and our well-being at work, in many of the ways that doctors and priests used to be, we end up going to them with our mental health struggles.

But they do not have the spiritual grounding of a priesthood, nor the mandate of a doctor, and are therefore at a loss as to how to adequately and safely support a colleague, she says.

“Additionally, older managers who manage Millennials and Gen Zs have a different generational understanding of how to deal with mental health issues”, she says.

“This can put more pressure on management, but as more of the Millennial generation move into leadership roles, we also might see a shift in sensitivity towards the mental health conversation”.

Rice says as mental health challenges increasingly show up in the workplace – with a knock-on effect that includes decreased productivity poor quality of work, increased absenteeism and even high staff turnover – companies are expected to deal with it to a far greater extent.

“This raises a number of important questions, such as what does the business do about employees’ mental health, how much responsibility does the business assume and who within the business is responsible?”

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Empowering versus rescuing

Companies must ensure they do not infantilise employees, but rather empower them, Rice says.

“While there is always the temptation to rescue people, we need to continually treat them as fully formed adults who have agency and know what they need to be well, although they just need some support to access what they need”.

Rescuing only creates victims and fosters helplessness, which in turn does not make for high-performing employees.

We should rather help people become more resilient and more capable in their lives, she says.

“An attitude of empowerment also lets managers off the hook. For example, if a person on the team is going through a messy divorce, managers need to be able to draw the line between accommodating someone who is struggling and covering for their non-performance”.

“The policies that already exist inside the business can help with this and therefore, instead of the manager picking up the slack, employees could use their annual leave to take some time off to process what they are going through or sick leave in response to mental health advice from their medical professional”.

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Calling in the experts

Rice says instead of managers shouldering the weight, companies can also provide tools and resources, such as online therapy and wellness programmes.

Other resources include books, articles and access to associations where employees can get more information.

However, companies must be careful not to overdo this, as employees need to take ownership of their mental health journey.

At Skynamo, for instance, everyone from the housekeeper to the CEO can use online therapy sessions anonymously through a service called Ollie.health.

“We do not know who is accessing the service, nor what they talk about, but we do know that every month we assist eight to ten people in accessing counselling support”.

In other words, the company buys mental health credits, which it shares across the business; those who need it take it up.

Rice says this is a great tool because it is something the business can provide without it being directly involved.

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Modern leader skills

As employees rely more on their managers to cope with their mental health struggles, managers are under additional pressure.

This means the skills required to be a good manager are changing.

In the past, managers managed the work, but now they have to support and contain the people doing the work and do so with empathy, Rice says.

“Modern managers must be skilled in coaching, facilitation and empathy if they want to be able to give their teams what they need to succeed.”

“This, in turn, is putting pressure on the human resources teams to provide training in areas that were not considered important before. The whole business needs to adjust to the evolving needs of its people”.

However, Rice says this does not just mean sending them on coaching courses.

It also extends to having leadership and mentoring and demonstrating empathy in the way that the business is run.

“Additionally, in the same way that therapists need therapists, managers also need coaches to process the emotional work that they’re now having to do”.

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Fast-paced solutions

As we work in the information economy, where people’s psychological safety gives them room to be creative and innovative, establishing this has now become one of businesses’ main jobs.

That said, Rice warns that leaders must clarify the role that the business takes in its employees’ mental health and wellness journey and then communicate it so that everyone knows what to expect.

“With inflation rising, the risk of a recession looming, fuel price fluctuations and load shedding becoming an at least a twice daily occurrence, employees’ stress is understandably at an all-time high, even more so than in 2020, the previous all-time high.

“Therefore, clear boundaries regarding the role of the business are now more important than ever.

“If this is not communicated and enforced, the business will suffer even more so under these external pressures”.

Read more on these topics

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