Mind the toxic workplace

The recently established University of the Free State Women’s Forum (UFSWF) believes that much more needs to be done by institutions to address mental health, especially during the pandemic. October has been declared Mental Health Awareness Month in South Africa. The objective is to educate the public about mental health and also to reduce the stigma and discrimination that people with mental illness are subjected to.

Mental health problems include, among others, depression, anxiety, grief, trauma, substance abuse, and workplace-related stress. Covid-19 has also exacerbated mental health problems in the workplace through increased stress and reduced productivity, for example. There is growing evidence that both the content and context of work can play a role in the development of mental health problems in the workplace.

Some key factors are:

  • long working hours
  • lack of interaction due to Covid-19
  • lack of recognition at work
  • inequity
  • poor interpersonal relationships
  • poor working conditions
  • poor leadership and communication

For a long time, mental health has been ignored, labelled as laziness and weakness, or only associated with the very extreme end of the scale. Those who struggle with it are labelled with offensive slurs such as “mad” or “crazy” and are treated as social deviants who need to be ashamed of or hide their mental illness. For a long time, people preferred to stay in a state of mental torment rather than recognising it, in whatever form, as a treatable disease.

As contradictory as it may sound, the Covid-19 pandemic has given us the gift of reflection when it comes to mental health and many other social ills that contribute to our individual and shared mental well-being. More people were able to reflect on and accept their mental health challenges, not as crippling, but as normal treatable diseases that should not be shunned.

Sadly, many institutions and places of work were unwilling or unable to adequately address mental health challenges caused or exacerbated by demanding, stressful workplace culture and workload. Many organisations’ solutions to mental health are “fluffy” facades masquerading as wellness activities, which do nothing to get to the core of the anxiety that employees feel when major retrenchments happen as a result of the economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic or company structuring. They fail to deal with the overwhelming workload and changes that remaining staff must carry, sometimes with no additional financial support or benefits to ease the burden.

The commodification of labour is one of the factors that add to organisations’ inability to address mental health issues. People are viewed and treated as commodities first, their humanity, feelings, and goals become an inconvenient secondary. When people are viewed as commodities in the workplace, they become no different than the inanimate goods or services that the organisation offers. Just like the goods or commodities, the employee is easily replaced or “modified” in dignity-stripping ways, rather than supported in ways that empower and help them to cope with the work or personal issues that might be causing mental illness. When you add racism and patriarchy to this dynamic, workplaces can become toxic spaces that affect mental health and deplete more than uplift.

Many families single-handedly shouldered the burden caused by the lockdown, while still trying to be their best in the workplace. Families finally understand the trials that teachers go through with ADD/ADHD children in class settings, as parents took on the teaching role while still juggling full-time jobs. 

Friends and family took time to identify the symptoms of depression in themselves and loved ones and found ways to help themselves and one another on their journey to taking control over their mental well-being. We are seeing more young people, especially in the black community, taking responsibility for their mental well-being and taking charge by seeking professional help without shame.

As Africans, we tend to thrive in community settings; however, contemporary South Africa is designed in such a way that the Westernised culture of individuality is prominent. We go about life alone, far from family and the communities we identify with. The pressure to succeed alone and to go back and share the success also adds to the depression and anxiety that many feel.

Working during a pandemic seems to have added to the mental health challenges many people face, but like most social ills, lockdown is not the cause. The loneliness and alienation that many people feel in the workplace was made worse by the hard lockdown. For some, the hard lockdown came with increased working hours, as organisations heavily leaned on employees to come up with solutions to the new challenges that we were all facing.

organisations have a long history of ignoring or minimising the challenges employees face. In 2018, the suicide of UCT professor and top South African cardiologist Bongani Mayosi had many confused and wondering why someone at the peak of their career would cut their life short. It called many to question the notion of mental illness being something only experienced by “dysfunctional” or “rebellious” people and has shown that mental illness can seem like success, it can even seem happy when people conceal their true feelings.

The suicide of Professor Mayosi has raised debate about how workplace dynamics can have a very real and damaging impact on individuals, and this can also affect family life. In Prof Mayosi’s case, UCT management rejected Prof Mayosi’s resignation attempt, which was his own way of dealing with his depression; the institution did this without offering additional support to help him cope with the depression and alienation he was feeling.

Karl Marx, one of the founding fathers of sociology, was ahead of his time as he was witnessing the rise of capitalism during the First Industrial Revolution. One of the many things he questioned about this era, which is perhaps more important today, was the alienation that people would no doubt feel when their labour was commodified, when they were pitted against each other in a harmful workplace culture that rewarded competition over collaboration. He even questioned the internal alienation that workers would feel as their creativity and need for social relations were suppressed and replaced with the demands of industry.

The current wave of awareness and acceptance of mental illness is long overdue. Many people have suffered without assistance and have lost their lives or themselves under a veil of shame that hinders much-needed discussion and support. UFSWF believes that it is more important than ever to show support and direct one another on the path to professional assistance. But the question remains – when will institutions heed this cry for help and put people and well-being first?

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Kelebogile Olivier
Kelebogile Olivier is a lecturer in the department of criminology at the University of the Free State and the secretary of the University of the Free State Women’s Forum
Nombulelo Shange
Nombulelo Shange is a lecturer in the department of sociology at UFS and deputy chairperson of the forum
Maria Madiope
Dr Maria Madiope is principal of the university’s South Campus and founder of the forum.

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