mental illness

How to address mental illness in the workplace

Employers tend to find it easier to manage their employees’ physical disabilities than their mental health challenges. Not only are

Mental health issues are not only harder to recognise, but they are also less well understood and continue to carry a stigma, one expert said recently, adding that it was 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, said as the number of cases of mental illness continues to rise in the workplace, employers needed to make a point of focusing on mental health issues.

This, she added, was in the interests of both employee wellbeing and company performance.
October is Mental Illness Awareness Month in South Africa, and Ramjee regretted that many individuals continued to suffer in silence, often due to lack of awareness.

One out of four South Africans is affected by mental health problems, but only between 15% and 25% of these individuals seek help, according to a recent study conducted by Prof Crick Lund.

“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,” Ramjee explained.

She cited the following early signs of stress-related mental illness:
• 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,” Ramjee pointed out.

Ramjee said if left unmanaged or unreported, mental illness could 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,” she said.

“These could include adjusting the employee’s working hours, duties and tasks, and making changes to their physical environment.”

Image: Shuttershock

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