High employee absenteeism, low turnover rates, poor work quality – these are just some of the traits to look out for when an employee is suffering from a mental health-related disorder. The South African Anxiety and Depression Group (SADAG) states that only one in six employees are willing to disclose their diagnosis or wellbeing with their employer due to the taboo nature of the topic. The symptoms which are associated with most mental disorders such as insomnia, weight gain/loss, headaches, chest pains, weaker immune systems, all play a part in negatively affecting both employee and employer productivity. When one is plagued by depression, anxiety, or any other mental illness, it finds a way to trickle down into every area of an individual’s life – and work life is always the culprit.

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According to the SADAG, 16.5% of the South African adult population suffers from mental illness. With more attention being given to mental health awareness over the last few years, the stigma still exists within the workplace. With the high unemployment rates – many choose not to disclose their diagnosis, out of the fear of losing their jobs. The high cost of psychiatric care also places financial strain for many – the high costs of medical aid means that the alternative is to seek public healthcare, which in many cases is overloaded and thus cannot accommodate any more patients. While some organisations do offer in-house-therapy, the causes which affect the individual’s, in some cases, lay within the workplace itself, making it harder to seek long-term solutions on how to manage these.


South Africa’s socio-economic climate creates an environment for depression and anxiety to breed. With the country’s high unemployment, crime and poverty rates, these triggers place more pressure on many citizens, making it harder to achieve longevity in their mental wellbeing. The country’s diverse landscape also means that many still associate mental disorders with demon possession or karma (the consequences for any evil actions one may have committed). These associations further prompt many to remain silent, to avoid such stigmas being placed on them and their families.



What can be done?

According to the Employment Relations Exchange, many organisations have an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) which acts as a preventative measure for many whose work performance is being impacted by their ailing mental health. Organisations such as The South African Federation for Mental Health (SAFMA) and The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) can assist businesses by providing them with the necessary resources needed to address these issues in the workplace.

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Also, creating a workspace which makes addressing these issues as usual as addressing other physical ailments will help employees and employers seek treatment sooner. In doing so, this may result in less work-related accidents caused by substance abuse and lack of sleep and food (all symptoms of mental disorders).

Mental Health Awareness Month (October) seeks to bring to light the key issues which affect South Africa’s rising mental illness levels. Creating spaces which makes it easier to open up and seek help might see organisations and employers saving money in the long run on recruitment, health and productivity costs.


The Constitution (Act 108 of 1996) prohibits the unfair discrimination of people with mental disorders. Employees are protected in cases where unethical and illegal measured are followed to dismiss that due to their mental illness diagnosis.


While the World Health Organisation predicts that depression will be the second-highest cause of global disability burden by 2020, should the trend of stigma continue, this prediction will only prove right. As a developing country, organisations such as SADAG and legislation such as the Employment Equity Act work hand in hand to encourage employees and employers to seek help and protect them from unfair dismissal.


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