The ‘new normal’ is taking its toll on South Africa. The effects of a struggling economy and rising unemployment has been particularly hard-hitting on younger generations, coupled with the emotional and mental strain of living with social restrictions has compounded the problem. With limited access to stress relief activities, there has been an increase in substance abuse as a coping mechanism, which highlights a growing need for companies to focus on the well-being of their younger staff, particularly through employee assistance programmes.
Younger generations strongly impacted
A 2020 study published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry examined the psychosocial impact of the pandemic, investigating the rates of healthy and unhealthy coping mechanisms and differences in anxiety across generational groups. The study concluded that while adaptive health habits (such as exercise) were comparable across generations, unhealthy coping mechanisms (such as substance abuse) were higher among the younger age groups, particularly millennials (15 to 34 years old). Results also revealed that the highest rate of clinically significant anxiety lies with millennials, indicating that younger generations have the highest rates of Covid-related concerns.
Closer to home, a study. by the South African Labour and Development Research Unit assessed the prevalence and factors associated with depressive symptoms among young people aged 18-35 years during lockdown. An online survey with a sample of 11 700 participants covering all the provinces of the country revealed a prevalence of depressive symptoms of 72% among younger participants, which is high and extremely worrisome.
Substance abuse during the pandemic
One of the most obvious unhealthy coping mechanisms is drinking. Repeated blanket bans on the sale of alcohol in South Africa over the past year have had little positive effect. In fact, the alcohol prohibitions have exacerbated an already dire situation as many individuals turned to other illegal, dangerous substances as a coping mechanism, without access to alcohol. Not only is this problematic because it has health repercussions for the individual, but there are also criminal and legal implications as well – especially when it comes to the working portion of our youth. The Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Act demands a zero-tolerance approach toward intoxication in the workplace, particularly in high-risk sectors where accidents have the potential to be life-threatening.
How do organisations provide a safe workplace? Keeping intoxicated employees out of the workplace requires clear anti-intoxication policies coupled with strict enforcement through employee testing. For alcohol, breathalysers are the most effective means of testing for intoxication and for substance abuse, saliva testing can provide immediate results detecting recent consumption effective within minutes after the use of drugs. Saliva testing is seen as less intrusive than urine testing and also more effective at determining recent consumption. Furthermore, the use of an oral swab to wipe the inside of the cheek means there are fewer privacy issues with this testing method, compared to urine collection.
Pay attention to the underlying problem
Strict enforcement of anti-intoxication policies in the workplace should be counterbalanced by measures that seek to identify and address the underlying issue of substance abuse. This is particularly important right now given the collective mental fragility of our younger population, as draconian implementation of substance testing and disciplinary action will only cause employees to be more devious in their attempts to conceal their substance abuse problem. Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) in the workplace can be an effective means for individuals to come forward and admit to substance dependency and ask for help in dealing with their problem, without fear of disciplinary backlash. The specifics of each EAP initiative will vary from organisation to organisation – some assist employees by sponsoring their rehabilitation, but at the very least the individual should be afforded paid sick leave, making it possible for them to seek treatment. In addition to such a confidential facility, organisations need to prioritise the mental wellbeing of their workers, while educating and creating awareness around the dangers of substance abuse and the available options for treatment and recovery.
Even tougher times ahead
As difficult as it may be to face, life is going to get a lot harder for South Africans as we continue to deal with the impact of a pandemic that shows no signs of disappearing. Access to state-provided mental health support is extremely limited in SA, which means that businesses will be required to step up during these tough times and prioritise the wellbeing of their workers. This is important not only from an occupational health and safety perspective, but from a business continuity perspective – people are the most important asset in any business, and right now those assets need additional support and assistance.
Author: Rhys Evans, Managing Director at ALCO-Safe