Addressing mental illness in the workplace

9 Oct 2017
Employers tend to find it easier to manage their employees’ physical disabilities than their mental health challenges.

Not only are mental health issues harder to recognise, but they are also 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.

Urvashi Ramjee, Head of Claims Management at Old Mutual Group Assurance, says that 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.

Speaking in support of Mental Illness Awareness Month, Ramjee says many individuals continue to suffer in silence, often due to lack of awareness. A recent study by Prof Crick Lund revealed that one in four South Africans are affected by mental health problems, but as few as 15%-25% of these individuals seek help.

“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,” says Ramjee. The early signs of stress-related mental illness 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.

“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.

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.”

Employers need to also take proactive steps de-stigmatise mental illness in the workplace and help everyone in their employ to identify early signs of mental illness, says Ramjee.

“A simple email campaign can help raise awareness around how easily mental illness can be overlooked. For example, including messages such as, ‘Are you struggling to sleep at night?’, ‘Do you constantly feel overwhelmed at work?’ or ‘Do you feel demotivated?’ are all telling questions that can help employees assess whether they need to consult a doctor or wellness professional for assistance.”

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.”

Ramjee stresses there should be no shame attached to having a mental illness. “The more it is de-stigmatised and understood, the greater the chances of keeping your workplace healthy and productive.”