Debt is one of the biggest healthcare risks to South Africa’s workforce and it puts company performance at risk.

This is according to Dr Richard Malkin, MD of Workforce Healthcare, who says: “In dealing with 34 000 employees nationally, we have seen that rising debt often leads to staff members developing physical and mental health problems, which puts companies at risk of reduced productivity and fraud.

“If left unchecked, these employees spend more time at work trying to dig themselves out of debt, only to find themselves in more debt and at further risk for health problems. In industrial, mining and manufacturing environments, blue collar workers that are not coping financially also become more vulnerable to accidents and injury.”

He adds: “We find that people under financial stress tend to experience health problems in the short-term due to raised cortisol levels. Their concentration and memory are affected and work performance plummets. In the longer term, this stress increases the risk of heart disease, stroke and digestive problems and can exacerbate diseases like depression and diabetes.

“We also deal with presenteeism, being present but not working or producing anything.”

Nevania Naidoo, GM of employee wellness at Workforce Healthcare, explains: “We noticed that absenteeism on the 25th and first of every month was increasing – these dates coincide with payday. We realised that besides the negative effects of financial strain on mental and physical health, loan sharks were waiting at company premises to get their money back, including exorbitant interest. In certain cases, the loan sharks are fellow colleagues of those experiencing financial strain and therefore the only way to avoid them is to be absent from work.”

Naidoo says that Workforce Healthcare has put a system in place to gauge and deal with financial stress as soon as possible. “Payroll departments are the first to realise that an employee is financially stressed, as garnishee and maintenance orders come off salaries. Payroll will pick up an issue well before a manager has performance concerns.

“If managed proactively and sensitively, we can assist employees to build better financial health and minimise mental and physical health problems. This reduces the negative impact on employee productivity and performance.”