Zoomed to death: Momentum research shows mental health in SA is under 'severe pressure'

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  • Momentum Corporate says mental health in the country is under "severe pressure".
  • Life coach Dr Alex Granger says the phenomenon of "crisis excellence" that companies adopted to survive in 2020 is not sustainable.
  • More workers are fatigued, stressed and suffering from poor ergonomics of home-based offices.

Momentum Corporate says employees' mental health is under severe pressure. Adapting to the new remote working environment, feelings of isolation, worrying whether they'll have their jobs tomorrow while arranging burials for loved ones has left many barely getting by mentally.

During the presentation of its 2021 Connect Insights report, which looked at how organisations and their employees have adapted to challenges presented by Covid-19, Momentum Corporate CEO Dumo Mbethe said: "Mental health is under pressure, severe pressure."

The insurer, which provides medical aid and group risk insurance to employer schemes, said its research shows that since July 2020, 32% of employees have been at risk of stress-related health impairments.

"The way we work has undergone a rapid and radical transformation," added Mbethe.

He said already 9% of all of Momentum Corporate's disability claims on average were related to mental health issues. Now because of Covid-19, the insurer expects a spike in the near future. Mbethe said musculoskeletal related claims, which were already one of the top three disability claim causes, are also likely to rise due to poor ergonomics of home-based offices.

Nico van der Walt, the executive for group insurance at Momentum Corporate, said psychiatric conditions seem to affect younger members of the working population, particularly the millennials who make up more than half of the workforce now.

But why is the workforce which dealt with the 2008/09 global financial crisis and came on the other end in one piece struggling this time?

The 'crisis excellence' standards

Internationally acclaimed life coach Dr Alex Granger said the extraordinary circumstances brought by Covid-19 shifted everyone to the adapt or die mode. Companies pushed harder to reach targets, employees worked more to prove their worth, but everyone has stayed in this mode longer than they should.

"Companies are riding the wave of what I call crisis excellence. We were celebrating that 'wow we are able to do so much in a crisis, more than we've ever done before,'" he said.

While people could not be in two places simultaneously, the Zoom office has made connecting much easier, and people are moving from one meeting to another, leaving people to catch up on work during what used to be after-work hours.

Granger likened this crisis excellence to the adrenaline rush that gives people extra energy but only for a short period. So, having seen the "crisis excellence" results, companies are expecting that this is the new standard. 

"Don't be fooled. The very things that you were able to achieve during the crisis are not sustainable," said Granger.

Granger said while people began the lockdown in the "resilient" mode as they were trying to keep their jobs, over a period of time, they became "traumatised" by what was going on around them. 

Earlier this year, Stanford University published the results of the first large-scale study examining the full extent of what has now been termed "Zoom fatigue". It found that the shift from in-person meetings to virtual ones has taken its toll on people. The back-to-back meetings, close-up eye contact and limited movement during the day were just some of the things that left people more exhausted in the virtual world.

Mbethe said Momentum Corporate has introduced "meeting free zones" where the company does not schedule any meetings on Wednesday afternoons. He said the biggest risk that companies face now is ignoring or downplaying the fundamental shifts that are taking place. He said it was time to "rewire" approaches to leadership, employee culture and employee benefits.

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