Mental health in the workplace

Depression in the workplace is on the rise and employers are battling to manage this costly illness.

“There is a need among employers to recognize mental health issues as a legitimate workplace concern.”

Mental health related illnesses in the workplace are common and may result in absenteeism and lost productivity.

The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) reports that depression can affect cognitive functioning. This means that mental health issues can seriously undermine the employee’s abilities in decision making, concentration, memory and problem solving skills.

So where does this leave business executives? How do employers balance the rights of the employee with the needs of the business?

“...more and more employers are faced with the challenge of developing policies and guidelines to address these issues.”

“The development of appropriate prevention and mental health promotion policies in the workplace is an increasing concern for many employers. Understanding the need for early intervention and treatment, as well as reintegrating an employee into the work environment, is also a critical challenge.”

In order for employers to effectively address this issue it is imperative that they understand the rights of the employees and the legal requirements placed on the organisation to accommodate staff in this category.

Employees that suffer from depression and other mental health impairments must be treated fairly and are protected by labour law and anti-discrimination law.

“An employee may not be dismissed solely based on a mental disability such as depression.”

The general principle is that the employer must “reasonably accommodate” an employee with a mental health condition. The type of accommodation that is required will depend on the facts and may include additional sick leave or transferring an employee to a more suitable position.

The employer must take into account the specific features and symptoms of each particular mental health condition as well as the manner in which each specific individual is affected. An employer would have to determine, in the particular circumstances whether they would have to permanently accommodate the employee such as transferring them to another position, or whether accommodation may be put in place to deal with the effects of the disorder as and when they occur( such as additional leave or sick leave).

What are the employer’s rights?

An employer is not required to accommodate an employee with a disability as this would impose an unjustified hardship on the employer’s business. Furthermore, a dismissal may be justified in terms of an inherent requirement of the job.

However, it is not so much the organisation’s policies that will make the difference, but the overall culture of understanding and acceptance. Stigma and discrimination can greatly exacerbate the difficulties faced by people with mental health problems.

Want to know more about South African Labour Law? Join the Labour Law course hosted by UCT [email protected] in March 2017.