On my radar: Stress comes at a hefty price for all

The recent deaths of celebrated commercial director Keith Rose and hip-hop artist Jabulani “HHP” Tsambo, reportedly through suicide, have shocked the public as well as the industries they worked in.

The fact that both deaths followed on from World Mental Health Day on October 10 makes the news that much more poignant.

HHP struggled with depression for a number of years and even admitted to attempting suicide three times in 2015.

While celebrities like Kanye West, Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato have helped put the spotlight on mental health issues by being open and vocal about their struggles, more and more incidents of workplace suicides are being documented.

In 2016, an Uber software engineer making a six-figure income killed himself, with his family blaming workplace stress.

Here in South Africa, in September, Lennox Garane‚ a section manager in Parliament’s international relations and protocol division, shot himself in his office.

He left a note saying his suicide was a protest against 20 months of bullying, emotional abuse and isolation by his manager.

A 2014 survey by global public opinion and data company YouGov found that 56% of people say they find work stressful, but don’t feel able to tell their employers.

The numbers have since escalated and the impact can be equally devastating.

In London, a 21-year-old Merrill Lynch intern collapsed and died after working 72 hours straight.

But it’s not only a noxious work environment that is increasing anxiety and stress levels.

In South Africa, concerns about a stagnant economy, rising food and fuel prices, political uncertainty and violent crime have become a toxic brew we imbibe subconsciously.

Add to that the blurred boundaries of a digitised work environment, blue light emanating from our always-on devices affecting our sleep patterns and a rising tide of loneliness owing to physical disconnection, and it’s not hard to see the cumulative effects of what is now referred to as “bombardment stress”.

The result of this bombardment stress has resulted in a global spike of absenteeism in the workplace.

According to a survey of 800 000 workers in more than 300 companies, the number of employees calling in sick because of stress tripled from 1996 to 2000.

Today, an estimated 1 million workers are absent every day owing to stress.

Even the ones who are at work aren’t mentally attuned to their jobs.

This is known as “presenteeism” and is defined as when employees are at work physically, but are not productive owing to distractions.

Chief executives who only worry about the bottom line must take note. This is hitting you where it hurts most.

The Momentum Effective Employee Index reveals that presenteeism is costing businesses 5% of gross operating profits. In other words, South African businesses are losing up to R89 billion a year owing to distracted employees.

Last month’s World Mental Health Day seemed to have nudged corporate conscience.

Many companies shared their employer initiatives to combat stress, anxiety and depression for their workforce, priding themselves on their exercise initiatives – like yoga classes – or providing healthy fruits bowls.

However, the Financial Times commented that: “The subtext to the ‘corporate wellness’ trend is troubling. Employers have pulled off a remarkable feat of complacency, assuming they are the solution rather than part of the problem.”

There is medical research that shows a clear link between high-strain jobs – which combine high pressure with a lack of control – and cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal problems, stress and depression.

The costs of putting staff under stress and strain are starting to become evident, and the ripple effect is concerning.

In the UK, teachers were found to be the most exhausted of all, which has a direct knock-on effect on the quality of education they are giving children. We’re all affected, even indirectly.

In a superdigitised society like South Korea, the wellness trend has morphed into a strange but understandable “fast healing” cultural movement where people look for a quick remedy for relaxation, the same way they consume fast foods.

Globally, consumer brands are starting to offer life coaching services, while products and services to assist or boost your mental health are booming – it is referred to as “anxiety consumerism”.

But while people are actively seeking help to maintain a holistic wellbeing, the spotlight is falling on the source of the problem – your place of work, where most of us spend a third of our lives.

If we link the rising human cost of ignoring employee wellbeing with the estimated R40 billion annual loss to the South African economy, then this is a problem a complementary office fruit bowl is not going to solve.

All businesses should heed the sage advice of the Mayo Clinic, a non-profit academic medical centre based in Minnesota, US, which believes that “your supervisor is more important to your health than your family doctor”.

I’ll let that sink in.

Chang is the founder of Flux Trends. For more trends, visit fluxtrends.com

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