What lies behind the sick note

The country is wrestling with a problem very few are even aware of A problem that is difficult to see at ground level and is better observed from a more elevated position, where patterns and impacts are clearer.

As detailed in an article in last Friday’s edition, mental health in the workplace is an emerging crisis in the country, one that is ignored, overlooked or dismissed by those in a position to do something.

Everyday, thousands of employees turn in sick notes or make other excuses to avoid work due to any of one of the numerous manifestations of poor mental health. Absenteeism in the workplace and poor productivity are the impact at ground level, but climb higher in your observation deck and you may see the impact at national economy level.

Nearly each global comparative report such as the Global Competitiveness and Ease of Doing Business reports, as well local reviews such as the Business Expectations Survey, highlight poor work ethic, productivity and output as key challenges in the local business space.

We would hazard that a major contributor to high absenteeism and poor productivity is the range of mental health issues affecting our workforce. Surveys into this issue suggest driving factors include the lack of awareness and treatment of mental health in the workplace as well as stigmatisation.

Picture a hamster wheel where the national workforce rotates, generally underpaid, over-indebted, unprotected thanks to infrequent labour inspections and disempowered by legislation favouring employees over employers.

Ask the Botswana Federation of Trade Unions about the conditions of service in the country’s factories, or the diamond unions about how Batswana slave away in sweaty environments in the cutting and polishing firms with a two litre bottle of warm water for company. Or ask the public service unions about how many of their members go home each month with zero-nett pay, the euphemism that actually means someone’s deductions are more than their pay on a monthly basis.

Botswana does not have legislated debt counselling such as a National Credit Regulator in South Africa, labour conflicts often drag on inordinately in a judicial system that favours employers and the numbers of those charged with ensuring the workplace is conducive to work in, are woefully inadequate. In all this, workers are expected to be grateful they have jobs. Given the high unemployment, they should not be grumbling or talking about mental health in the workplace.

In their sick notes, workers will claim the flu, headaches and any other ailment except depression and anxiety which, of course, their bosses would ignorantly dismiss as laziness.

The starting point is our legislators who make the laws and employers, appreciating the link between a happy workforce, a productive workforce and the tangible impact on profits and the national economy.

Companies already have an idea that this link exists, but they go only as far as wellness days which focus on the physical, rather than the mental. Go further.


Today’s thought


“Mental health is often missing

from public health debates

even though it’s critical to wellbeing”


 – Diane Abbott

Editor's Comment
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