Mental health in the workplace is top of mind for everyone these days. That is why Fumani Mathumbu from the Good Work Foundation is leading the charge of good mental health in the workplace by spearheading a group where men can come together to share their thoughts and feeling in a safe space without fear of stigma.
The Good Work Foundation (GWF) in an education nonprofit based in Mpumalanga.
According to the second annual Mental State of the World report from Sapien Labs, South Africans’ overall mental health ranks among the lowest in the world – and it’s become worse since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Realising this, GWF has put measures in place to ensure students and staff alike have access to support to keep their mental wellness on track.
“We as a society don’t focus as much as we should on mental health, especially among young people,” says Mathumbu (32), GWF’s Hazyview digital learning campus manager.
“In Hazyview, for example, we don’t discuss it because there’s such a stigma when it comes to mental health. People think ‘mental health issues’ automatically means ‘mental illness’, which is not the same thing.
‘Sisonke in our struggles’
Mathumbu says there is a burden of expectation on many students to create a better future not just for themselves, but for their families too. This places tremendous pressure on them, “because if you fail, you don’t just fail yourself – it’s bigger than just you. And the reality is that even if you do pass, unemployment is probably waiting for you on the other side”.
To counter this, Mathumbu believes forming mutual support systems within work, community and social groups is essential – and is a firm advocate for the power of mentorship in addressing mental health issues such as anxiety and depression before they spiral out of control.
He relates by referring to his own journey when he was young.
Where he lives, he says, young people are particularly vulnerable and need support, but he is also concerned about rural men’s mental well-being “because we don’t come from an environment of being able to express ourselves”.
This energetic go-getter has set up an informal men’s support group that caters for staff across GWF campuses, dealing holistically with “mental health and beyond – issues that are unique to our community”.
Besides informal counselling taking place through the sharing of experiences and advice, they also invite experts to give talks on topics ranging from professional development to education. Mathumbu explains that this is because good mental health can be drawn from everything around you.
The group offers men a forum to talk about matters close to their hearts such as job security, finances, anxiety and even existential concerns such as Covid-19-enforced isolation. “People put a lot of pressure on themselves, and we need to realise how important it is to express our feelings,” says Mathumbu.
‘Look out for each other’
On a more formalised level, GWF offers a Look, Listen and Link mental health support programme throughout the organisation, providing students and staff with access to psychologists and counselling, should they need it.
But beyond organisations providing an empathetic and nurturing environment that prioritises mental health, Mathumbu says it’s also vital for individuals to take up the cudgels to look out for colleagues and friends. “It’s not just management’s responsibility,” he asserts.
“For example, we can approach a colleague who appears to be struggling and ask them to sit down for a coffee. And just ask, ‘How are you doing? How can I help you?’ And you’d be amazed at how people will open up about their mental health issues if you have that relationship of confidentiality and trust. The simple act of listening can be so powerful – especially for people who aren’t comfortable opening up in a group.”
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