While there have been important strides in recognising mental illness as a legitimate health concern, many employers are not equipped to deal with the mental health of their employees adequately.

Every year, absenteeism and reduced productivity cost companies inordinate sums of money. The flip side of the coin is stigmatisation of employees, and unfair and discriminatory practices. 

Aadil Patel, the head of the employment practice at legal firm Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr, said employers need to be more proactive about employee mental health. 

Mental health is a broad term referring to a host of mental and emotional conditions. “Most companies have felt the consequence of untreated or poorly managed mental health conditions among employees in one way or another,” he said. 

Similarly, many employees have felt alone in their battle against mental illness. Many have lost their jobs, some their careers and families, and in other cases their lives. 
Legislation means that employees enjoy protection against discrimination and unfair dismissal because of mental illness, but stigma exists over and beyond the legal framework that protect employees, said Patel.

Because of this, many employees would rather remain quiet about mental health issues than suffer the humiliation that could occur in a company that does not have a proactive programme in place, he added.

“Every year mental health awareness campaigns provide evidence that society in general is becoming more enlightened regarding mental illness. The next step is proactive and constructive discussions between management and employees,” said Patel.

Besides being the right thing to do, having processes in place to pre-empt, mitigate and manage mental health challenges can go a long way towards reducing the impact on company and employee productivity.

“There are many things that employers can do to be proactive. These start with driving a culture of positivity and openness where employees feel safe to speak to their managers and human resources departments. Positive language is the starting point,” he said. 

He said that one of the most effective ways of creating and supporting a culture of non-discrimination around mental illness is introducing employee training and awareness programmes that seek to destigmatise the issue, but also enlighten employees about support structures or programmes that they may not otherwise know existed.

“A company could consider introducing a dedicated counselling service for its employees. Reviewing the absenteeism policy and keeping it in line with the mental health training and support structure is another important step in not only protecting the rights of employees, but also in helping to reduce the hours lost to mental illness,” Patel said.

He advised that mental illness, like many other diseases, can be managed and treated successfully. Many companies have already established programmes to assist employees deal with mental illness or symptoms related to their conditions. It is important to equip these programmes properly so that they have the desired effect, he said.

The workplace environment itself may be a trigger for mental illness. A proactive approach to managing the work environment of employees could go a long way towards reducing unwanted incidents and related absenteeism.

Companies should be alert to the crossover between absenteeism and disciplinary proceedings, said Patel, as a potential claim could well go against a company if it is found that a suspension or dismissal was automatically unfair because it most likely occurred as a result of a mental illness, not as a result of work-related transgressions.

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