With a deadly virus wreaking global havoc, enforced home-bound isolation and a general sense of unease, the past few months have had a crippling effect on the well-being of many. At the University of Cape Town (UCT), Staff Organisational Health and Wellness – a division of Human Resources – is at the ready to support both individual staff members and teams in times of crisis.
Since South Africa’s battle against COVID-19 started in March this year and lockdown measures were enforced, the uncertainty and utter strangeness of the situation has taken its toll on the country’s workforce. Working from home has posed a challenge for many, while others have simply been unable to continue their jobs during this time. Among UCT’s academic and professional, administrative support and service (PASS) staff, high levels of stress and burnout have been reported.
It is precisely for times like these, where staff members could benefit from additional support, that Organisational Health and Wellness was established. In a recent Senior Staff Management Advisory Group (SSMag) meeting, Margie Tainton, who heads up staff health and wellness at UCT, and Dr Tony Davidson, an external consultant in organisational health, shared a few insights about the general well-being of UCT’s staff and the uptake of health support services during this time.
Working closely with service providers like Discovery Health, which provides medical aid cover to 53% of UCT staff members; Kaelo Health, which provides primary health cover to over 1 200 staff; Independent Counselling and Advisory Services (ICAS); the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG); and UCT’s occupational health services, the Organisational Health and Wellness Office is able to keep tabs on the general health of staff members.
“What we’ve developed over the years is a health indicator dashboard.”
“We have an organisational health consultative forum where we meet with healthcare providers on a quarterly basis,” said Tainton. “What we’ve developed over the years is a health indicator dashboard.”
As Davidson explains, the dashboard is a means of documenting organisational health activities at UCT and their outcomes. It provides information on everything from the adoption rate of wellness programmes like Discovery Vitality to the numbers of staff members who have been hospitalised, incapacitated or passed away during a specific quarter.
It also offers insight into the screening, prevalence and treatment of lifestyle conditions, such as high blood pressure, cholesterol and HIV, as well as psychosocial ailments. Currently, there is not enough data available from service providers about COVID-19 to add to the dashboard, but Davidson says this will be added to the dashboard in due course.
Psychosocial support during a pandemic
Of course, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown measures, the wellness drives and screening programmes that would normally have been available to staff members on campus have come to a halt. Psychosocial support, however, is still available from both ICAS and SADAG, albeit telephonic and online instead of the usual face-to-face sessions.
“In Q2 – the lockdown – the actual engagement with ICAS has dropped quite dramatically. That is of concern.”
Unfortunately, the uptake of these services among staff members has been somewhat disappointing.
“In Q2 – the lockdown – the actual engagement with ICAS has dropped quite dramatically. That is of concern,” said Davidson.
During the first quarter ICAS reported an engagement rate of 17,4% with UCT staff members. This took the form of 93 telephone calls, 55 face-to-face sessions and 99 group participants. The engagement rate dropped to 7,5% during the second quarter, consisting of 101 telephonic contacts, 19 face-to-face sessions, six online sessions and five group participants.
“A lot of the work that was done in the first quarter was about group work,” explained Davidson. “This involved going into particular areas where there had been a death in service or where there was a problem with team dynamics. Obviously, that had to drop off now.”
“During the second quarter, the symptom complexes ICAS dealt with were largely stress-related – specifically individuals battling to maintaining a work–life balance”
During the second quarter, the symptom complexes ICAS dealt with were largely stress-related – specifically individuals battling to maintaining a work–life balance while working from home and interpersonal issues with partners or family members.
ICAS has been able to assist UCT staff members through various well-developed programmes focusing specifically on life in lockdown and reintegration into the workplace post-lockdown.
Similar to ICAS, SADAG also reported a drop in engagements, from 414 in the first quarter to 347 in the second quarter.
Depression and anxiety were the top two issues that SADAG dealt with during this time. These were related to dealing with COVID-19, feelings of isolation and a sense of being “trapped” at home. Unfortunately, there were also a number of calls related to gender-based violence, which Davidson said is “of grave concern.”
“Depression and anxiety were the top two issues that SADAG dealt with during this time. These were related to dealing with COVID-19.”
As with ICAS, SADAG has various programmes in place to support staff members. These include dealing with substance abuse during COVID-19, the psychological impact of COVID-19 and mental health during lockdown.
Return to UCT in numbers
Organisational Health and Wellness has also been assisting the COVID-19 Coordinating Committee (CCC) with the Return to UCT programme. This has involved tracking and tracing staff members who have contracted the virus and offering support to bereaved families of staff members who have passed away.
In preparation for the second semester, which started on 2 August 2020, UCT’s Occupational Health Clinic sent out a COVID-19 questionnaire to those staff members and postgraduates who were invited to return to campus. It was answered by 1 440 people – 991 staff and 449 postgraduates.
The questionnaire is being used to assess whether it is safe for these staff members or postgraduates to return to campus.
Staff members who have any queries about returning to campus safely or need advice on counselling for psychosocial support can contact Blanche Claasen-Hoskins from Staff Organisational Health and Wellness.
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COVID-19 is a global pandemic that caused President Cyril Ramaphosa to declare a national disaster in South Africa on 15 March and implement a national lockdown from 26 March.
UCT is taking the threat of infection in our university community extremely seriously, and this page will be updated regularly with the latest COVID-19 information.
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In an email to the UCT community, Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng said:
“COVID-19, caused by the virus SARS-CoV-2, is a rapidly changing epidemic. [...] Information [...] will be updated as and when new information becomes available.”
We are continuing to monitor the situation and we will be updating the UCT community regularly – as and when there are further updates. If you are concerned or need more information, students can contact the Student Wellness Service on 021 650 5620 or 021 650 1271 (after hours), while staff can contact 021 650 5685.