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Ways to recognise and address mental illness in the workplace


A better understanding and the de-stigmatisation of mental illness in the workplace is essential for employers to improve the chances of keeping the workplace healthy and productive.

Urvashi Ramjee, Head of Claims Management at Old Mutual Group Assurance, says as the number of cases of mental illness continue to rise in the workplace, employers need to make a point of focusing on mental health issues – in the interests of both employee wellbeing and company performance.

Ramjee says mental health issues are hard to recognise, less well understood and continue to carry a stigma. “It is critical for this stigma to be removed so that the varying causes, symptoms and implications of mental illness can be better understood and addressed.”

“Many individuals continue to suffer in silence, often due to lack of awareness. A recent study revealed that one in four South Africans are affected by mental health problems, but as few as 15%-25% of these individuals seek help.

She says employers find it easier to manage their employees’ physical disabilities than their mental health challenges. “Typically, the development of a mental illness is a slow and gradual process, whereas a physical injury or ailment is often more tangible and obvious to anyone looking at the person.

“With the stigma surrounding mental illness still quite high, many people in the workplace often dismiss its warning signs and blame them on other factors instead. For instance, an employee could initially externalise their lowered performance and blame it on their manager or colleagues, while their employer may perceive the problem to be laziness,” she says.

Early signs of stress-related mental illness employers should be aware of include short yet frequent (and increasing) periods of absence from the workplace, more frequent errors and a reduction in quality of work, and increased forgetfulness about tasks, meetings and deadlines.

Ramjee explains that if left unmanaged or unreported, mental illness can become debilitating, resulting in an employee being unable to perform their work function effectively.

To avoid this, employers need to manage mental illness in the workplace more actively. “When an employee is diagnosed with severe stress, acute anxiety or depression, for example, employers need to consider workable solutions that can be implemented to support the employee. These could include adjusting the employee’s working hours, duties and tasks, and making changes to their physical environment.”

Creating an environment in which employees feel comfortable to talk to their managers and co-workers is also crucial in early detection and management. “The sooner stress and other mental conditions are detected, the better the outcome. Companies are advised to remain close to their employees by setting up regular check-ins or informal meetings to help with early detection.”

Ramjee stresses that for these solutions to be effective, employers should educate themselves about the many forms mental illness can take so that they are able to recognise when and how their employees may be suffering. She however warns employers not to blur the lines between the role of an employer and health care professional. “Certain situations require the services of a qualified health professional, such as an occupational therapist or psychiatrist, who are better equipped to advise both the employer and employee on how to deal with the problem.”