You cannot pour for others unless your own jug is full,” says Vukani Mngxati, CEO of Accenture in Africa. It is a simple metaphor used to describe his attitude toward mental health in the workplace. He openly speaks about going for therapy to help manage stress, something that would have been seen as taboo a couple of decades ago.

But according to expert opinions gathered from the Business Day Dialogues in partnership with Accenture, Mngxati’s willingness to discuss mental health is exactly what corporates need.

Accenture says it prides itself on putting the physical and mental well-being of its employees first. Mental illness in South Africa is on a steady increase and is exacerbated by an unrelenting profit “grind”. It is in the best interests of business leaders to open to conversations around mental health.

“During the pandemic more people were diagnosed with anxiety and depression,” explains Dr Nondumiso Makhunga-Stevenson, Medical Advisor at SANOFI. She explained how these issues manifest in problems like absenteeism and worsening of existing medical conditions.

“There is also the concept of presenteeism when people who suffer from mental illness do make it to work but they are distracted. They might suffer from anxiety or fear of a panic attack, they might suffer from insomnia, so they have daytime drowsiness,” she says.

It is unsurprising therefore that increased mental health issues are directly correlated with lower levels of productivity, and undoubtedly affect a company’s bottom line.

While organisations are slowly realising the importance of providing programmes for mental health, addressing this issue, and shifting the culture around mental health in the workplace, begins with leaders, says Chanique Dodo, HR leader at Oracle.

She believes that the well-being of employees must be part of the agenda in executive meetings and executives should be investing in long-term support structures.

Jeanett Modise, Group Human Resources Executive at Sanlam, agreed that leaders should be creating an organisational culture of trust and openness. She says: “Leaders set the tone. Leaders must be vulnerable and open. That says to employees that it is okay if you are not well. Mental illness does not know any race, age, or status.”

The concept of leaders as exemplifying figures in tackling mental health in the workplace was a key takeaway from the panel. But this is only the start. To extend Mngxati’s metaphor, the contents of the “mental wellbeing” jug should cascade down through every organisational level. We should be equipping middle managers with guidance and tools to deal with mental illness effectively. Dodo explains that this is where organisations need to step up and provide support structures consisting of mental health professionals, like psychologists and psychiatrists, who can recognise the signs of mental illness and take appropriate action.

Makhunga-Stevenson agreed, arguing that a shift in culture also comes from elevating mental health initiatives to the same level of importance given to physical health initiatives. This also comes from providing employees with the resources to empower themselves.

Ultimately improving mental health in an organisation comes down to the attitudes of its leaders. As Mngxati explains, “the days of mental well-being falling to the wayside are gone. This must be a priority and it must be taken seriously. As leaders, we must be kind. Kind to others but to ourselves first so that we can pour from a full cup.”

Click here to watch the Business Day Dialogue, in partnership with Accenture.