Keketso Kgomosotho, a candidate attorney in the Employment and Compensation Practice at Baker McKenzie in Johannesburg, reflects on gender equality and its impact on the mental health in the workplace in our Ubuntu series on mental wellness.
For much of the pre-industrial era, what was going on in the minds of workers was considered to be of no relevance to the quality of their work. Workers were simply required to show up physically at the workplace. A worker's mental space was assumed to have no bearing on their ability to till the soil or scatter the seeds. Managers often used some form of pressure, or a whip, to direct workers’ actions. But things have since evolved. In our current economy, the most critical tool any business has is its workers' minds. Working at its best, the human mind is a state-of-the-art piece of machinery, capable of painting the Sistine Chapel, writing the Google algorithm, and calculating precise mathematical trajectories that landed Apollo 11 on the moon. Given its crucial value to the business, it follows that the mental health of a workforce should be a top priority for employers.
The question is, how does an employer implement practical solutions that create or promote conditions that will allow a workforce to perform at its peak? That is where the essential nature of mental health enters the workplace. There is generally no difficulty in appreciating the importance of IT systems, governance structures or management tools to the success of a business. But, the one thing the global pandemic has taught us collectively is that your workforce’s health is your business as an employer. We are on the verge of a revolution when it comes to taking on board the psychological principles that govern our minds. Mindfulness is becoming the new buzzword, and employers across the globe are reckoning with the absolutely critical nature of mental health in the workplace, and what can be done to ensure that all employees can feel psychologically safe at work.
The pandemic has also highlighted how women (more so black women) are disproportionately at risk of poor mental health as a result of the different and intersecting challenges they have to contend with, including at home, work, financially or in accessing affirming mental healthcare. In many cases, women have continued to earn less than their male counterparts. More women work part-time or with flexible schedules, which is a particularly insecure position to be in, especially in the face of reduced hours and job losses. This sense of insecurity is intensified by the fact that in many households, women take on the role of primary caregivers for the vulnerable - including children, the elderly and the sick. Further, the financial and psychological weight of Covid-19, combined with our society's inclination to patriarchal violence, can lead to increased household tension and domestic abuse.
As women continue to negotiate the demands occasioned by the different societal roles of employee, parent, and caretaker, there is a heightened need for employers to respond with empathy, in the context of providing their employees with access to opportunities and support. How a business or an employer spends its money is a direct reflection of its social and economic priorities, and its appetite to meaningfully interrupt gender inequality, gender-based violence and the resultant mental health effects on women.
While many businesses already recognise the need for gender equality, improved mental health in the workplace, and the enmeshed relationship between both, a practical way to put this into action would be to structure spending in a way that is designed to achieve gender equality objectives — a process called gender-responsive budgeting.
Most of us perceive budgets at all levels to be gender-neutral or as a set of figures with no differential positive or negative impact for gender relations or equality. However, a closer look suggests otherwise. The way budgets are conceived and implemented has a different impact on women and girls compared to men and boys - very often to the detriment of the former. This is not because budgets are inherently problematic in a particularly sexist direction; rather, it is because budgets, too, operate in a society where men and women have different social roles, responsibilities, needs and identities, and enjoy varying access to resources and power. The world within which budgets operate is not neutral, it is laden with stubborn patriarchal landmines and gender inequalities that permeate all facets of women's lives.
Gender-responsive budgeting suggests a different approach, one aimed at mainstreaming the gender element into all stages of the budget cycle. This type of budgeting entails the process of imagining, planning, approving, implementing, monitoring, evaluating and auditing budgets in a way that is responsive and sensitive to the challenges women face when it comes to achieving substantive (as opposed to formal) gender equality. This approach requires that employers analyse all expenditure through a gender lens - recognising the implications and impacts that such spending will have for women and girls, relative to men and boys, and considering their respective priorities and needs.
Gender-sensitive budgeting looks beyond the balance sheets and considers whether men and women benefit differently under existing expenditure patterns. This kind of budgeting does not require a separate budget for women, nor does it aim to only increase spending on women’s programmes. Instead, it allows us to understand how we may need to adjust our priorities and reallocate resources to live up to our commitments to achieving substantive gender equality and create a psychologically safe workplace.
To achieve a paradigm shift in this direction, priorities must go beyond the office meditation/yoga room, or the occasional wellness seminar. Responding only in this way sends the message that as long as you meditate, you should be able to survive a workplace that otherwise remains unchanged, or is itself contributing to poor mental health. Instead, employers should focus on empowering women to have, for example, equitable access to work opportunities and advancements, equal pay for work of equal value, the right to capital assets, and a workplace that prioritises psychological wellbeing. A well-functioning mind is a world apart from one that isn’t; and without a healthy mental space, a worker may as well be sitting at home in their pyjamas.
Most employers have been vocal about their commitment to interrupting gender inequality and promoting mental health in the workplace. Budgets that are designed to respond to these aims are necessary for transforming rhetoric into reality and into positive, lived experiences for women. Gender-responsive budgeting requires that employers be mindful and intentional about the impact that their expenditure has on advancing substantive gender equality and, consequently, the mental and physical wellbeing of women in the workplace. It is a practical solution that will contribute to a happier workforce that is able to perform at its peak.
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