Debt a major healthcare risk in South Africa

If left unresolved, employees spend more time at work trying to dig themselves out of debt, only to find themselves in more debt and at further risk for health problems.

Debt is one of the biggest healthcare risks facing SA’s workforce and it puts company performance at risk. Feeling the pressure of rising debt, staff members often develop physical and mental health problems, which can lead to reduced productivity and even fraud.

MD of Workforce Healthcare Dr Richard Malkin says: “We find that people under financial stress tend to experience health problems in the short term due to raised cortisol (a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal cortex) levels.

“This is caused by lack of concentration and memory, and work performance plummets.”

He explains: “In the longer term, this stress increases the risk of heart disease, stroke and digestive problems, and can exacerbate diseases such as depression and diabetes. We also deal with presenteeism – the phenomenon of being present but not working or producing anything.

“If left unresolved, these employees spend more time at work trying to dig themselves out of debt, only to find themselves in more debt and at further risk for health problems.”

Specialist health and wellness provider Workforce Healthcare offers integrated employee wellness and assistance programmes as well as occupational and primary healthcare services to a client base of public and private companies across South Africa.

Its aim is to positively influence employee health and wellness through disease prevention, early detection and diagnosis, and interventions that restore and optimise health and wellness.

Nevania Naidoo, general manager of employee wellness at Workforce Healthcare, explains: “We noticed that absenteeism on the 25th and first of every month was increasing. These dates coincide with payday. We realised that besides the negative effects of financial strain on mental and physical health, loan sharks were waiting at company premises to get their money back, including exorbitant interest. In certain cases, the loan sharks are fellow colleagues of those experiencing financial strain and therefore the only way to avoid them is to stay absent from work.”

Naidoo adds that the organisation has put a proactive system in place to gauge and deal with financial stress as early as possible. “Payroll departments are the first to realise that an employee is financially stressed, as garnishee and maintenance orders come off salaries. Payroll will pick up an issue well before a manager has performance concerns. If the situation is managed proactively and sensitively, we can assist employees to build better financial health and minimise mental and physical health problems.”

Naidoo outlines the steps that are taken once payroll has informed them that an employee may be under financial strain: “Upon receipt of the referral form, we have psychologists and social workers who make the first call to the employee and establish whether she or he has given the company consent to assist them with their financial recovery. Once we have informed consent, a psychosocial assessment is made. A programme of financial and emotional support is put in place, with medical teams consulted when necessary. Support can be either telephonic or face-to-face and depends on the severity of the situation.”

Naidoo adds that indebtedness is not always related to income, and that regardless of income bracket, anyone can owe more than they earn.

“Sadly, when financial distress is not managed, it can even result in suicide. Employers can, however, help return staff to financial wellness, which will impact positively on their outlook and delivery at work,” Malkin concludes.

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