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World Mental Health Day: Are stress and anxiety the next pandemic South Africa will face?

9 October 2020
– 5 Minute Read


2020 has been dubbed a ‘throw-away’ year, filled with more pressures, fears and loss as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic than many have experienced before.

Remote working and home schooling have forced individuals to juggle every aspect of their lives at a heightened pace, with increased risk of burnout. Not to mention the frightening global state of domestic and racial violence.

This time last year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) approximated that one person in the world commits suicide every 40 seconds. South Africa’s suicide rate is in the top 10 highest figures globally with 8 000 people committing suicide every year.

Tomorrow, 10 October, is World Mental Health Day, which aims to highlight the importance of mental health. Employers have an important role to play and this newsflash outlines some of them.

The effect of stigma and the need to commit to its elimination

According to the WHO, mental illness is one of the leading causes of disability in 2020. The South African Depression and Anxiety Group further estimated that approximately 25% of South African employees have been diagnosed with depression and this figure is likely to increase as a result of the pandemic.

However, employees are often embarrassed to ask their employers for help because of the fear that they will be discriminated against. It is crucial for every business to acknowledge that employee wellness includes mental conditions as much as physical conditions and take steps to remove the stigma associated with mental illness.

Employers’ responsibilities

Mental illnesses that are not treated and properly dealt with can lead to excessive periods of absenteeism, loss of productivity and an inability for businesses to adequately and timeously complete tasks. It is therefore imperative for employers to appreciate that positive mental health influences their success and poor mental health is as much an employer’s problem as it is that of the individual employee who is suffering.

The Occupational Health and Safety Act requires employers to ensure that they provide a working environment that is safe and without risk to the health of their employees. This safety includes mental health.

Our Labour Appeal Court recently confirmed that depression must be looked at as a form of ill health. Accordingly, employers must follow items 10 and 11 of the Labour Relations Act, Code of Good Practice: Dismissal and conduct proper investigations when they seek to dismiss poor performing employees who may suffer from mental conditions.

Employers must evaluate an employee’s capability to perform and further consider the degree of incapacity if the employee is unable to perform. If the condition is likely to impair performance permanently, the employer should examine all the possible alternatives short of dismissal. The employer must attempt to reasonably accommodate the employee’s disability by contemplating potential adjustments to the employee’s working terms and conditions or duties. Some of these considerations include the reduction in working hours or workload; implementation of flexible working hours; or the delegation of work to other employees.

How to handle mental illness in the workplace

Mental health issues generally present themselves in the form of poor performance in the workplace. However, in these instances, the employee is in fact incapacitated from performing adequately. Any performance improvement plan will not rectify the issue. This is because the poor performance is created by the underlying mental issue and not as a result of the employee not meeting the standards of performance required due to lack of skill, training or understanding. Such occurrences must be treated as incapacity for ill health and not poor performance.

Mental health issues can also be displayed in other forms, such as misconduct through acts of gross insolence, gross insubordination or unreasonable behaviour. Our courts have held that dismissal for misconduct would be unfair where an employee’s condition weakens his or her state of mind to a debilitating degree, effecting his or her cognitive and conative abilities.

Where an employee is:

  • incapable of appreciating the wrongfulness of his or her conduct; and/or
  • cannot conduct him or herself in accordance with such an understanding,

then the employee may not be liable for misconduct. In these instances, an employer would need to manage the issue from an incapacity perspective.

However, in instances where an employee’s mental illness does not affect his or her ability to function but rather influences his or her misconduct, then disciplinary action can be taken against the employee. But, the employee’s state of mind may be considered as a mitigating factor when determining the appropriate sanction.

Where to from here?

Employers are encouraged to change the way that they address mental health in the workplace.

We recommend adopting a proactive approach such as implementing defined policies and procedures and initiating conversations with employees about mental wellness. Promoting a work-life balance, rest and time off are also critical in maintaining mental health.

Another suggestion that may encourage disclosure is to implement secured lines of communication or designated individuals who deal with matters confidentially. By tackling the problem head on, employers can prevent prolonged issues and assist to ensure optimal employee morale and productivity.

Where employees disclose their mental struggles, employers are encouraged to investigate ways to assist with their recovery, such as providing access to medical facilities and professional care.

The next pandemic is fast approaching, and employers are urged to remain vigilant and active in their responsibilities for their employees’ mental health.