Last week Industrial Psychology Consultants published their annual Zimbabwe National Employee Engagement Report 2014.

The report is based on a survey of 4 761 Zimbabwean employees and evaluates their levels of engagement and work experiences. While the results are marginally positive and show an improving trend in employee engagement, it is the levels of distress and mental illness in the workplace that has caught my attention.

Indeed, the impact of stress at work negatively affects workers and their communities, with a clear financial impact on businesses and beyond. Variables include absence due to sickness, the hidden cost of a sick employee, present at work, but not fully productive, and unemployment.

According the International Labour Organisation, the cost of work-related ill-health and the associated productivity loss will reach around 4–5% of GDP.

While stress is readily acknowledged to be a common feature of modern life, quantifying stress, its causes, symptoms and effects is a very complex matter. It is now widely accepted that work-related stress is very common and that it has a high cost on workers’ health, absenteeism and reduced performance.

Although stress is not a disease, it is the first warning sign of an impending problem; if the body experiences unimpeded stress, acute and chronic changes occur, leading to long-term damage to systems and organs within the body.

In Europe, where regional figures are available, stress is frequently reported as the second most work-related health problem; 50-60% of all lost working days are attributed to work-related stress and the number of people suffering from stress-related conditions caused or made worse by work is likely to increase. This represents a huge cost in terms of both human distress and impaired economic performance.

In the developing world, in spite of the fact that work-related stress is an issue of growing concern and that a number of studies on work-related stress have been produced, there is still a lack of adequate information on a national or regional level to access the magnitude of the problem and that can influence the commensurate public policy.

The changing world of work, the recent global economic crisis and recession are making increased demands on workers.

Globalisation and associated phenomena like fragmentation of the labour market, the demand for flexible contracts, downsizing and outsourcing, greater need for flexibility in terms of both function and skills, increasing use of temporary contracts, increased job insecurity, higher workload and pressure of performance, as well as poor work-life balance, are factors that contribute to work-related stress and add to the burden of stress around the world.

According to the Industrial Psychology Consultants, four in 10 working Zimbabweans experience symptoms of stress representing over 43% of the working population.

The symptoms include difficulty in thinking clearly, feeling down and depressed, disturbed sleep, easily irritated, lack of energy, tenseness, easily becoming emotional, no longer have interest in people and things. Other symptoms include feeling like you can’t do anything anymore and can’t face it anymore, a general feeling of resignation.

Distress and mental illness in the workplace is significantly higher in Zimbabwe with the global average being around 15-25%. In the US it is estimated that around 26,2% adults over the age of 18 suffer from diagnosable mental disorder in any given year. Evidence shows that one in every 20 Americans will be depressed in a given year and that major depression will be the second leading cause of disability in the year 2020. In Zimbabwe, three out of 10 employees experience depression symptoms.

It is estimated that Zimbabwean companies are losing over US$107 million a year in wages and productivity through mental health or stress-related absence from work. In South Africa, where data is available, the estimated cost is over ZAR3 billion.

In the UK, over 10,4 million days are lost to stress with an estimated cost of £6,4 billion. The number of employees coming to work disengaged, tired, unmotivated and too stressed to work is also on the rise and this also adds to the cost for employers.

According to the Distress and Other Mental Health Problems in the Zimbabwean Working Population Survey, conducted by Industrial Psychology Consultants last year:

27,3% of the working population is experiencing depression symptoms, namely feeling that things are meaningless, and they can’t see a way of escaping from their situation, life is not worthwhile, they would be better if they were dead, they can’t enjoy anything anymore, wishing they were dead.

18,3% of the working population experiences anxiety symptoms and these include vague feelings of fear, trembling when with others, panic attacks, feeling frightened and fear of going out of the house alone.

33,4% of the working population in Zimbabwe experience somatisation symptoms and these include headache, painful muscles, back pain, bloated feeling in the abdomen, neck pain, blurred vision, dizziness or feeling light-headed, nausea or an upset stomach, pressure or a tight feeling in the chest, pain in the chest, tingling in the fingers, excessive sweating, palpitations and fainting.

The manufacturing sector has the highest prevalence of depression symptoms (27,4%) followed by the financial sector (26,2%) with IT and telecommunications (17,8%) in third position.

The financial service sector (29,8%) leads in terms of prevalence of distress followed by the manufacturing sector (26%).

Female workers (34,2%) are more depressed than their male counterparts (21,5%). This means slightly more than three in every 10 working women suffer from depression.

The results of the survey are somewhat disturbing and reflect the harsh economic conditions prevalent in Zimbabwe. There are no easy solutions, but it is imperative that both government and employers address issues of distress and mental illness in the workplace.

Zimbabwe already suffers from high rates of unemployment, low levels of productivity and high cost of doing business. Employers need to work harder to remove the stigma attached to mental illness and ensure employees are taken care of. Government should consider formulating policies to address distress and mental illness in the workplace in order to guide industry.