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Workplace Stress: A Real Organizational Risk

Posted By NWI, Wednesday, February 7, 2018
Updated: Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Dr Dicky Els and Terrance M. Booysen  (Johannesburg 2017) 

 It is imperative that the impact of work-related stress and the negative impact of distress be incorporated into the organization’s enterprise-wide risk management framework. A Bloomberg study conducted in 2013 revealed that South Africa is the second-most “stressed‟ country out of a study of 74 countries.  This is hardly surprising given the high prevalence of political instability, economic uncertainty, high unemployment and growing crime rates in South Africa.  A 2017 cabinet reshuffle and the decision of Standard & Poor’s (S&P), including Fitch rating agencies to downgrade the country’s credit rating below investment grade to BB+ further exacerbates the political and economic uncertainty in South Africa.   

In the longer term, South Africa’s downgrade to “junk status” will have a number of dire consequences that directly affect the country’s future investment, interest rates, business growth, debt repayment and employment. When considering the volatility of corporations, globalization, political activism, greater BBBEE compliance, corporate restructuring and retrenchments; all these factors add to the stress among workers, be it directly or indirectly.  Notwithstanding the fact that there are mounting socio-economic pressures being placed upon employers and employees alike, employees are still expected to produce optimal results. These expectations contribute to workplace stress. 


Growing employer demands 

High-pressure work environments increasingly demand employees to be more innovative, creative, effective and productive.  With the fast pace and competitive environment in which we live today, employees are scrutinized to ensure they provide maximum productivity and their „survival‟ in the workplace depends upon whether they have exceeded the expectations of their employer.  Most organizations -- if not all -- are built on the premise that all employees are capable of handling the stresses associated with the workplace and economy, and that employees are all natural problem solvers.  But in reality, this is not the case.  Such expectation only adds to the employee‟s stress levels as they try to appease their employers.   

In the case of workplace stress, the primary duty of employers is to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that the health of employees is not put at risk.  This duty extends to protect employees particularly from the risk of harm from stressors that negatively impact or erode their physical and psychological health.  This means that if the nature and judgment of an organization’s human capital management are tested, the Labour Court will consider the conduct of the organization in deciding whether it is are liable to employees for any harm or loss. 

In addition to workplace stress, work-life balance has become quite blurred, to the point where it is becoming more difficult to clearly delineate when work actually starts and when it ends.  As most employees tend to perform work-related duties after “normal work hours‟, both the organization and their employees are negatively affected with the stress of work-life conflict.  Incompatible demands between the work and family roles of employees make participation in both roles difficult and sometimes this may lead to substance abuse, relationship problems, divorce, single parenting and/or financial difficulty. 

“Unfortunately, many people are only conscious that a harmful stress level has been reached once its negative effects have affected their work, health and wellness.  Making employers and workers aware, informed and competent to address these new risks creates a safe and healthy working environment, builds a positive and constructive preventive culture in the organization, boosts engagement and effectiveness, protects the health and wellness of workers, and increases productivity.” (Report - Workplace Stress: A Collective Challenge (ILO) (April 2016)) 

Workplace wellness is further taxed when employees fall victim to violent crimes.  Sexual harassment, car hijackings, house break-ins and kidnappings compound the physical and psychological ill health of employees.   

Whether workplace stress transpires from work or home-life experiences, it always has some effect on the work performance of employees.  This means that the human (psychological) capital of an organization can depreciate overnight, if stress and post-traumatic stress is mistreated, leading to more managerial problems, labour disputes and downstream costs.  The financial costs associated with workplace stress can be extremely high, especially when one considers matters such as absenteeism, presenteeism, medical aid expenses, death and disability claims, including management intervention costs.  Indeed, the costs are not complete without considering the fees associated with labour-related legal and court proceedings which are typically the end result of most distressed employment relationships

Dr. Dicky ElsDr Dicky Els is a Lead Independent Consultant in CGF.  He specializes in Workplace Wellness and focuses predominantly on strategy development, program design and evaluation of outcome-based health promotion programs.  For more information on our Employee Wellness program Evaluation or Wellness and Disease Management Audits, contact Dr Els directly on 082 4967960 or email or go to

Terrance M. BooysenTerrance M. Booysen, the CEO of CGF has presented numerous interventions to public and private audiences in and out of South Africa and has received many accolades directly linked with corporate governance.  He is a regular podium presenter and is considered knowledgeable in the practice, having produced many governance, risk and compliance reports and articles over the years.  More information regarding CGF can be found at

Tags:  International Wellness  Stress  workplace wellness 

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