IN LIGHT of World Mental Health Day celebrated on October 10, which this year focuses on mental health in the workplace, an expert said organisations and employees need to become more aware of the reality and impact that mental health has on the workplace.

Sebolelo Seape, the chairperson of the Psychiatry Management Group, said: “With more than 9.7% of the South African population (or 4.5 million to be exact) suffering from depression, the chances are quite real that the person sitting next to you in the office is at some stage in their lives coping with the condition. It is not only the duty of the individuals who suffer from mental health issues, but also organisations and colleagues to fight the stigma associated with it.”

Depression has a significant impact on productivity, which in turn aggravates the resulting problems at work and relationship with colleagues and line managers. “Depression causes problems with memory, procrastination, extreme fatigue, difficulty concentrating, anxiety, fear and panic, which will add to work-related stresses, crippling the output from the employee.”

She said that the cost of presenteeism, which means being at work while suffering from depression, has the most significant impact and equates to a loss of 4.23% of the country’s GDP and based on a worldwide study, the proportion lost to GDP is the highest in the world.

“In South Africa, employees are likely to keep working during periods of depression, impacting on their productivity and performance at work. This can be due to fear of losing their jobs, being ostracised by colleagues or lack of mental health knowledge, not understanding why they are going through a spell of periods of not being well. “Even those who take a sick day here and there because they are not mentally up for it are, in essence, self-diagnosing and their perceived coping mechanism will draw negative attention. In addition, they could be losing out on the support structure offered by their employer, putting their career and relationship with colleagues at risk,” said Seape.

She said that taking a few days off, but only ending up sitting at home doing nothing will not help one to cope when you do return to work. “Although depression – except in severe, chronic and debilitating cases – is not a disability, it can cause impairment at work and have an impact on daily life from sleeping to work, concentrating, regulating emotions or caring for oneself and needs to be addressed via the correct channels. You need to work together with your medical doctor and psychiatrist to determine the best treatment and how to manage your time off, special needs required at work or flexible working hours. By discussing the issues with your line manager or HR department and finding out the options available to you might alleviate a lot of the anxiety associated with depression while working.” But it is a two way-street, she added.

“You can’t expect the person suffering from depression to be the only one to be held accountable alone. The onus is on both the employee and equally on the employer. Organisations have a legal responsibility to the welfare of their staff. However, the fact that many employees in South Africa don’t report their depression to their employer due to fear of losing their job is rather worrying.” The law states that an employee with a mental health condition has a constitutional right to equality, human dignity, reasonable accommodation and fair labour practice. Therefore, an employer cannot demote or transfer a person or reduce a salary because of a mental health condition.

“The Employment Equity Act protects employees in the workplace, but only to an extent. Since the Act can’t possibly list all conditions, it leaves the employer with the power to decide what constitutes a disability and what doesn’t. “In addition, the ‘reasonable accommodation’ the law refers to what can include flexi-time, a quiet office space, reduction in workload or increased support, is also based on the word ‘reasonable’. The law cannot prescribe to an organisation what is and what’s not reasonable. So, if the employee suffering from depression needs to receive such special accommodation, the employer can simply say that, for example, their core business does not allow for flexible working hours, leaving the employee to either leave the employment or wait to be worked out.

“It is up to the employer therefore to decide how ‘serious’ the condition is to warrant any form of accommodation. And although the law can legislate against discrimination it cannot against stigma. Many who suffer from depression fear that the disclosure of their condition makes them vulnerable and that they may lose their jobs or be the first to be selected during times of restructuring or retrenchment. This is stigma and a culture that can only be changed within an organisation, not enforced by the law,” said Seape.

She said workplace attitudes that promote acceptance and openness about depression will have a significant impact on improving workplace productivity. Openness and support from managers will in turn foster an attitude of acceptance towards those who suffer from depression. “If depression is continuously seen as a weakness and something that people make up to receive special treatment or paid days off work or those suffering fear for their jobs, then neither the stigma associated with depression nor the lack in productivity and loss in revenue will change,” said Seape.

Supplied by the South African Depression and Anxiety Group

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