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Mental Health in the Workplace

I recently consulted on an article written for the October 2018 issue of the Edgars Club magazine. You can read the article below, and please contact me if you need assistance with dealing with Employee Wellness in your workplace.

Why Mental Health in the Workplace Matters by catriona ross

Stress, depression and long-term mental disorders can be debilitating for both employer and employee. Have a plan in place to ensure staff get the appropriate support, say the experts, and everyone will benefit.

These aren’t exactly topics you want to raise at work, where everyone’s discussing the new project and exciting weekend plans: depression, burnout, bipolar disorder and panic attacks. But avoiding discussing these often misunderstood conditions means workers may under-perform, causing the company low productivity and high staff turnover. Plus, an employee may miss the opportunity to get urgently needed help.

‘We get a lot of calls from people asking, “Should I disclose my mental illness in my job interview?”,’ says Cassie Chambers, operations director of SADAG, the South African Depression and Anxiety Group. ‘It brings up fears. People think they’re going to be stigmatised and humiliated, or regarded as weak and less productive.’

Janice*, 50, who works in publishing, feels exactly that. ‘I wouldn’t tell someone upfront that I’m bipolar. There’s still too much stigma around it. People would think I’m incapable, and I think I’d be sidelined.’

The past year has been ‘extremely difficult’ for her, as financial constraints have forced her to reduce her costly mood-stabilising medication to the bare minimum, and there are times during her depressive phases when she struggles to get through the day.

Janice has however informed her direct boss. ‘He’s the only one who needs to know, and has been incredibly supportive and helpful.’ He has also been direct with her, saying, ‘You’re doing this great,’ or ‘You haven’t been pleasant to be around in the office this week, just so you know’. She appreciates the practical assistance he has offered, such as allocating her a parking bay, without which she’d need to use public transport. Yet she wishes she could work flexible hours: although she often struggles to function in the early morning, she could ‘easily work till 8pm’.


Disclosure, scary as it may be, can bring benefits for both employer and employee, says Chambers. In fact, some companies welcome staff with diagnosed mental disorders, for disability points. Use your discretion: if your relationship with your line manager

is difficult, rather tell the company HR manager. Either way, superiors are bound by strict labour laws regarding confidentiality.

‘The more honest you are, the more the company is able to assist you,’ says Celeste Dickinson, independent human resources consultant. You might say, ‘I’m going through X. Are you able to cut me some slack temporarily?’ and request an afternoon off monthly to collect medication from a clinic, or an extended lunch break once a week to see a counsellor.

‘Ideally, each employer creates a culture where anyone can safely disclose a problem,’ she says, recommending in-house sessions where management and HR say, ‘We’re open to talking about these matters. If you’re having a problem, come to us.’

‘Companies need help in creating awareness and starting this conversation,’ agrees Chambers. SADAG offers this service, whether it’s sharing information through emailed fact sheets, presenting talks and staff wellness days, or conducting trauma debriefing after the death of a colleague. It’s about shifting away from mere ‘presenteeism’, where staff are present at their desks but, owing to health issues, not necessarily focused or productive.


Draw up an action plan. A long-term mental health problem is regarded as a disability, and must be treated with ‘reasonable accommodation’ by employers, says Dickinson. What is your course of action if an employee has depleted their sick leave? Must they claim from UIF after three months, for instance?

Consider forming a relationship with the medical practitioner handling an employee’s case – with the employee’s permission of course – to ask for recommendations, such as, ‘Is my staff member ready to come back to work?’

Ensure staff have access to appropriate help. Consider an outsourced EAP (Employee Assistance Programme) such as those by Kaelo and ICAS. For a nominal monthly fee per employee, staff and immediate family have access to a 24-hour counselling call centre for issues ranging from substance abuse to finances. ‘This takes the emotional burden off the employer,’ says Dickinson.

EAPs may offer themed monthly talks for staff, and quarterly reports logging how many calls were received (reported anonymously). A company can use this as a diagnostic tool, intervening if a particular department’s staff are showing strain.

Content marketer and writer Eulogi Rheeder, 36, experienced a compassionate response at a media house after her father died unexpectedly. ‘My bosses were really amazing. They said “Take as much time off as you need”.’ She took 10 days, but once back in the deadline-driven environment, she felt overwhelmed. ‘I’d been trying to be strong for my family, and spiralled into depression without realising it. I was falling behind with a special project and was ashamed to tell my team.’

One day, the deputy editor stood up and asked Eulogi about the project’s progress. ‘I just cracked. I couldn’t stop crying,’ Eulogi says. Soon after, the deputy editor took her for coffee. ‘She said she could see I wasn’t coping, that it was nothing to be ashamed of as I’d lost my father and was dealing with a lot.’ She encouraged Eulogi to consult a doctor. ‘Colleagues who’d been on anti-depressants told me their stories and were really supportive. It made me feel I wasn’t the only one.’ Eulogi’s GP booked her off work for a month and recommended anti-depressants. She says, ‘I rested well and felt completely ready to return to work.’

*name changed

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