South Africa is at risk of a major mental health crisis. While the figure has at times been misquoted, it’s estimated that around 30% of South Africans will suffer some form of mental illness over the course of a lifetime.
While people are increasingly seeking professional help, there is still a fair degree of stigma attached to mental illness in the workplace.
It’s hardly surprising then that many South Africans are not getting the help they need. A study by the Mental Health and Poverty Project (MHaPP), based at the department of psychiatry and mental health at UCT in Cape Town (cited by Careers 24), found that public attitudes toward mental health and treatment are still generally negative.
Without treatment though, people suffer, along with the economy. It’s estimated that lost days due to mental illness cost the South African economy around R40-billion a year.
All of this is a clear indicator that companies could play a much bigger role when it comes to their employees’ wellbeing.
But what conditions should they be looking out for?
While it’s difficult to get a handle on how many South Africans in the workplace suffer from depression (it is, after all, something that is generally underreported), at least one study has tried.
In 2015, health economics company Hexor found that nearly a quarter of South African workers had been diagnosed with depression.
That’s significantly higher than the five percent of the general population who are afflicted.
Anyone suffering through depression is likely to feel a major impact at work too. The majority of respondents in Hexor’s study felt that the condition made them less productive at work, caused them to make more mistakes, and made it more difficult for them to complete tasks.
“Depression affects cognitive functioning such as decision making, concentration, memory and problem solving abilities. Depression negatively impacts productivity. If an employee has depression but is at work, they are five times less productive than an employee who was absent due to depression,” psychiatrist and clinical psychologist, Dr Frans Korb told SADAG.
As well as having to deal with the depression itself many workers have to deal with the fear of stigma around depression.
At least a third of employees haven’t told their employers about their condition, with some 37% choosing not to do so for fear of losing their jobs.
Stress and Anxiety
South Africans are seriously stressed out. In fact, a 2014 study from Bloomberg found that South Africans are the second-most stressed out people on the planet, with only Nigerians suffering more stress.
As is the case with depression, there are numerous contributing factors to South Africans being so stressed out, including economic uncertainty, lack of job security, and high pressure working environments. Evidence of the stress that South African employees are under can be found in the fact that around 53% of the South African workforce does not take the annual leave allocated to it.
On its own, stress doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. The trouble comes when people don’t have the right coping mechanisms to deal with it.
When that happens, stress can be a major contributing factor in a number of mental illnesses, including anxiety and depression.
When it comes to addressing stress in the workplace, it’s important for businesses not to just apply a band-aid style approach. The should look to understand what the biggest causes of stress are among South African workers.
In the wider context, work, finances, and health can all play a part.
But within each workplace, people are likely to face individual pressures. These could be anything from tough clients to demanding bosses and unfriendly colleagues.
Whatever the cause, failing to address negative stress will have be to the detriment of the business and its employees.
Alcohol abuse seldom exists in isolation, usually accompanying other mental health conditions. In many cases, people who suffer from mental illness use alcohol to soothe the uncomfortable feelings caused by their conditions.
In South Africa, alcohol abuse is a major problem. According to the World Health Organisation, the country is now one of the top 20 consumers of alcohol in the world.
Given that, there’s a pretty good chance that alcohol will affect a colleague’s ability to work at some point.
While it may be tempting to keep quiet and hope the problem goes away (especially if the person is still performing), that’s often not an option. Airline pilots, truck drivers, and machine operators are required to operate within tight alcohol consumption rules. Office workers meanwhile usually aren’t under the same kinds of pressure. Ignoring the problem can also mean the person affected takes longer to get help than they should.
Should you observe a pattern of alcohol abuse in an employee, it’s crucial that you approach the person with sensitivity and compassion, but make the person aware that there are consequences to continued drinking.
Do the right thing
When it comes to dealing with any mental illness in the workplace, that sense of compassion is vital. Remember, just because someone’s mental illness occasionally affects their job, doesn’t mean they’re incompetent.
One of the best ways to adapt to this mindset is to substitute the mental illness for a physical one. Would you react negatively if an employee had cancer or diabetes? Then why should your thinking be different if someone is battling depression or anxiety?
Get this right and you’ll fast earn a reputation as an employer who cares.