Mind your head

Mind your head

Risk is an everyday part of life. We try our best to avoid it, or – at the very least – limit its effects … But are occupational health and safety practitioners preparing for the right risks? JACO DE KLERK investigates

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the national independent watchdog for work-related health, safety and illness across Great Britain’s workplaces, a risk assessment is an important step in protecting your workers and your business.

The independent regulator adds that it helps if you focus on the risks that really matter in your workplace. “In many instances, straightforward measures can readily control risks; for example, ensuring spillages are cleaned up promptly so people do not slip, or that cupboard drawers are kept closed to ensure that people do not trip,” notes the HSE. “For most, that means simple, cheap and effective measures to ensure your most valuable asset – your workforce – is protected.”

But not all hazards can be managed with a mop or self-closing drawers, as some risks aren’t from the “physical” world … Occupational Care South Africa (OCSA), a provider of professional health and wellness services to over 540 South African companies, and a leader in occupational health in southern Africa, explains.

“With one in every four people around the world experiencing a mental illness, the odds are that we all rub shoulders with it.” Whether we live or work with someone with a condition, or have a condition ourselves, mental disorders affect nearly 12 percent of the world’s population, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

It’s also estimated that about 450 million people around the world will experience a mental illness that would benefit from diagnosis and treatment … So it is evident that the intangible world can have a massive impact on the workplace.

According to OCSA, mental illness leads to uncontrolled sick-related absenteeism, poor quality of work and impaired productivity. It’s no wonder that mental illness has a significant financial impact on the broad economy. A rough estimate puts the total cost of treatment, within the medical aid industry alone, at around R6 billion per annum.

“This figure is not fully representative of the industry, as we are drawing from our own data, but it certainly gives a very good picture of the cost levels,” says Discovery Health spokesperson, Nkuli Mlaba.

OCSA adds that many employees do function well at work and have very good attendance. It cautions, however, that this can change overnight with the onset of mental illness, which can be related to domestic, or workplace events and stress, resulting in anxiety and depression. “Work performance and attendance then drops to unstable levels which significantly impacts on productivity,” the organisation notes.

According to the WHO, depression will be the second highest cause of morbidity in the world by 2020. At an OCSA seminar, psychiatrist Jan Chabalala highlighted that depression isn’t just a convenient diagnosis, it is one of the most debilitating medical illnesses.

“You cannot ‘pull yourself out of it’, depression needs to be treated,” he points out – adding, however, that it can remit by itself, but not before causing a great deal of suffering. “In fact, there is a recurrence of the condition in 90 percent of untreated patients,” says Chabalala.

And, as OCSA reiterates, depression at work can result in absenteeism, aggression, poor performance, conflict and crying spells. It can also create difficulties with clients and even substance abuse (as an attempt to self medicate), if it isn’t treated.

But depression isn’t the only mental illness affecting South Africans. OSCA states that bipolar disorder also presents various risks. People are often labelled as bipolar when they have tendencies to shift between the highs and lows of life. “It is, however, a terminology that is being used too flippantly. We are emotional creatures and variations in mood are part of life after all,” says OCSA.

“Bipolar disorder is a serious illness where the extremes of emotion go too far, from deep depression to the highs of manic behaviour.” It is a leading cause of disability at work. In fact, OCSA notes, it is a condition that affects between one and four percent of the population, in its various forms. It is often misdiagnosed, because the mania is not always present at the time of diagnosis. “Compliance and monitoring of treatment is necessary to support patients in their working lives,” says OCSA.

But the majority of low- and middle-income countries spend less than two percent of their health budget on mental health, according to the WHO. South Africa, like many other countries, needs to increase investment in mental health and shift the available resources towards more effective services. With job losses and stress rising out of the economic crisis, more funding is needed to promote mental health at work.

And risks may not always take a “physical” form, but we need to do what we can to plan for, avoid and limit its effects as organisations protect their most valuable assets.

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