A recent review of health care professionals around the world found that one in four reported depression and anxiety, and one in three suffered insomnia since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.
WHO recently highlighted an alarming rise in reports of verbal harassment, discrimination and physical violence among health workers in the wake of COVID-19.
In South Africa, health care workers are facing similar challenges.
A testimony by Sr Philander who works in the Covid-19 high Care Unit at Tygerberg Hospital in Cape Town exposed the devastating work conditions that health workers endure during covid-19
“People used to die in front of me and I was expected to be strong because other patients need my service, I literally cried on my way home – to work, I cried. We didn’t have time to reflect emotionally when patients die because a new one is ready to use the bed,” explained Philander.
The South African government recognised the risks health workers are exposed to. It came up with a national strategy to protect the health and safety of health workers.
This strategy also protects both the physical and mental health of frontline health workers and acknowledges their need for social support by providing healthcare workers with psychological counselling and social support.
Patient placement, sufficient ventilation in facilities, hand hygiene, environmental cleaning and wearing of personal protective clothing appropriate to the task being performed are part of the key infection prevention and control guidelines that aim to protect the physical health of health workers.
Though the South African government claims to recognise the risk health workers are exposed to health economists and lecturers at the Health Economics Unit and Health Economics Division at the University of Cape Town. Dr Sumaiyah Docrat doubts its effectiveness.
“South Africa spends 5% of the total health budget on mental health services, which is in line with the lower end of international benchmarks of the recommended amount that countries should spend on mental health yet crude estimates indicate that [fewer] than 1 in 10 uninsured South Africans access those services.”
Provincial and national budgets for mental health services are not reported or routinely available. There are still inequalities in spending on mental health in provinces with the spend ranging from 2.1% of the budget in Mpumalanga to 7.7% in the Western Cape,” she explained adding that broader mental health system resources including adequate infrastructure, human resources, community-based service platforms, and training opportunities vary widely with rural provinces as the most disadvantaged,” she concluded.
Mental health is integral, closely related to, and dependent upon the realization of all human rights. In the context of the coronavirus pandemic, reports highlight gross neglect of mental health and violations of individual civil liberties and fundamental rights such as mobility rights, access to accurate information, access to proper protection for health workers,
Communications officer at the Department of health in Western Cape, Nadia Ferreira says the department of health recognises that managing mental health in the workplace can lead to improved productivity and engagement.
She explained that this can be done through the provision of awareness, encouraging disclosure about a mental health condition and the employer’s provision of reasonable accommodation”.
According to Ferreira Recognising and promoting mental health is an essential part of creating a safe and healthy workplace.
“Managers and employees both have a role to play in building a safe working environment – one that will not exacerbate mental health conditions and where support can be given to those who require the assistance” She says
Ferreira explained that the department of health has an employee health and wellness programme which offer services free of charge to staff. This includes mental health services such as psychiatry assessment and counselling.
The management and teams regularly organise staff appreciation initiatives in both Bitou and Knysna subdistricts. Communication is also shared with staff on different mental health issues and where to go for help.
By Siphokazi Mnyobe