When daily life gets too stressful, and employees feel anxious, overworked or depressed, their HR department may encourage them to take a tour of the “Panda Forest”.

When daily life gets too stressful, and employees feel anxious, overworked or depressed, their HR department may encourage them to take a tour of the “Panda Forest”. This virtual meeting place – on the South African Panda mental health app – enables people to playfully explore and improve their mental wellbeing. The Forest lets users join live, audio-only group sessions on a wide range of mental wellbeing topics, based on what they have selected as their biggest concerns. Popular ones are: work-life balance; parenting; topical content from women for women; and the “Man Cave”, which is a safe space to voice men’s mental health challenges.

After logging in biometrically, users see which live sessions are lined up for the coming days (a random sample includes “Enhancing productivity through mindfulness”, “The art of saying no”, “Thriving in the workplace”, “Managing workload and avoiding burnout”, to name a few).

In the Forest, anybody can listen to expert- or peer-led sessions and, if they feel up to it, type their own questions and thoughts into the chat function or request the microphone. For confidentiality, nicknames and avatars are used instead of real names and the sessions are not recorded.

The aim is to triage people who feel emotionally unwell, and match them with the right care exactly when they need it – from the group support of the Forest community, life skills training via videos, articles, and activities with mental health-related content, to text-based chat support on non-clinical issues, and one-on-one sessions with registered mental health professionals, all the way to a 24/7 emergency helpline.

Why invest in employee and student mental wellbeing?

“We now have an opportunity to reach those who previously didn’t access mental health support, because they either feared being stigmatised and judged, or simply didn’t know where to go,” says Dr. Frank Magwegwe, a faculty member at the Gordon School of Business Science (GIBS). “The Panda app is a data-driven, pre-emptive support intervention and a daily way of engaging with your mental wellbeing.” 

In June 2023, GIBS piloted Panda as part of its employee assistance programme to encourage approximately 290 staff members to actively take charge of their mental wellbeing. This is increasingly important, as mental health disorders are growing, and could cost the global economy as much as $16-trillion between 2010 and  2030. Covid has amplified existing challenges, with anxiety and depression increasing by more than 25% during the first year of the pandemic, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) 2022 World Mental Health Report.

However, Magwegwe points out that pre-Covid, the WHO had already warned of the “pandemic” of workplace stress. “The World Economic Forum and the WHO have asked people about the major sources of stress in their lives,” he says. “Their answer was the workplace, followed by finances, then different kinds of societal stress, such as parenting and caregiving, or issues like load-shedding.”

Employee absenteeism, presenteeism (being at work but unwell) and low engagement add to the problem. Gallup’s 2023 State of the Global Workplace Report estimates that low employee engagement cost the world economy $8.8 trillion or 9% of global GDP. “The impact of wellbeing extends far beyond how people feel – it affects the number of sick days employees take, their job performance, burnout, and the likelihood of leaving your organisation,” says Gallup, which conducted a survey that found employee wellbeing to be the key for workplace productivity. Respondents who strongly agree that their employer cares about their overall wellbeing are three times more engaged at work compared with other employees, 36% more likely to thrive in their overall lives, 71% less likely to report experiencing “a lot of burnout”, and 69% less likely to actively search for a new job. 

Taking these trends into account, GIBS now also offers the Panda app to its students, starting with the approximately 1 900 who are enrolled in degree programmes.

The Forest has GIBS-tailored content to suit the needs of their learning journey – on top of support from a dedicated class mentor, an intensive coaching component to their leadership module and the option to access a mental health professional, should they require it.

Learning from data

Users can track their progress on the app to see which assessments and training sessions they have completed and how their mood is evolving.

Panda uses AI to interpret the scores of the completed screenings (which relate to anything from mental health attitude, burnout, depression, anxiety, social media use, eating disorders, relationships, to post-traumatic stress), and then offers personalised recommendations on how to improve the scores. “We don’t have to wait for months to realise that our staff or students are going through a lot of stress,” says Magwegwe. “The data is telling us exactly in which areas of their lives they’re struggling, which enables us to respond quickly.”

The first weeks of the GIBS pilot showed, for example, that staff were primarily interacting with issues around anxiety, self-esteem, and financial wellbeing.

Clearly, employee assistance programmes that address mental wellbeing are no longer just a perk but essential for organisational culture and productivity – and ultimately for being a good employer.

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