IIG News

Depression in the workplace – shifting perspective and changing the conversation

Conversations mould perceptions 

In 2018 statistics indicated that 23 people committed suicide every day and a further 460 attempted to take their own lives.Research further indicates that 1 in 3 people in the country will suffer from mental illness at some point in their lives. Mental illness has become a topic on the tip of everybody’s tongue.

A cry for help

In 2016, a study in the South African Journal of Psychiatry found that employee support structures and policies related to mental health (and more specifically depression) were fragmented.Depression used to be classified as a mood disorder characterised by persistently, a feeling of sadness and loss of interest. However, it’s becoming clear that depression is not just based on mood. It is a persistent problem, not a passing one.The economic burden of depression is high; employees seeking treatment worry about the stigma attached to the illness – making it less compelling for employees to want to seek help and tell their managers.  Furthermore, managers do not feel equipped to manage employees with depression.A different study found that at least one in four employees have been diagnosed with depression with each depressive episode taking an average of 18 days off work.When sufferers are at work, they experience poor concentration, forgetfulness, slow thinking, poor problem solving and struggle to express their thoughts.

A significant dent

It would be disingenuous to say that an illness with such a large impact on cognitive thinking does not dent the bottom line and our economy.

Employers need to step up in this area.  They must do all that they can to raise awareness about mental illness and ensure that support is easily and readily available for those impacted.  Awareness and training on how to interact with a person with depression must be provided to all employees at all levels so that people with depression are not stigmatised by other workers. There must be evident and visible support lines and policies.

As part of employee benefit packages, most employers do offer integration programmes for employees who have been off work for a long time due to depression.  The programmes come in the form of Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP) and Temporary disability cover offered by employee benefit administrators.

These programmes offer qualified people to support an ill employee, their manager and team during the time of illness and transition back into the workplace.  They provide tools for recognising and addressing related symptoms, if they were to resurface. Sick leave policies can also be enhanced to cater for people with depression or other forms of mental illness.

The ultimate goal

If the ultimate goal is to keep productivity up, then employers need to commit to demystifying depression and educating those in their organisations and themselves about the predominant ailments at play in society today.

It starts with creating dignified systems that make it easy to normalise disclosure of a depression diagnosis. Employers must create safe spaces that allow those suffering from the illness not to think their jobs are at risk because they are sick.

The biggest burden regarding depression in the workplace lies at the employer’s feet which is why it should be employers who labour the most to create healthy environments and workspaces that address mental health. Employers also need to figure out contingency plans with regards to loss of productivity due to mental health related illnesses.

It is imperative for an employer to provide a holistic employee wellness programme that offers comprehensive benefits. These may include:

  • Face-to-face and telephonic counselling services;
  • Legal and financial advice;
  • Trauma support
  • Managerial support;
  • Physical wellness in a form of an in-house gym facility or executive wellness programmes and
  • Social and financial wellness
  • Awareness drives

Be proactive

Most corporates conduct and rely on wellness day initiatives to gather information as well as address some wellness issues of their employees.

While this is good and encouraged, it is important for employers to be vigilant and keep their eyes on the health matters of their employees. Managers should be trained to recognise or identify the symptoms of depression while creating safe spaces for employees to speak about their conditions.

What we know is not enough. Dialogue must continue so we can work on bringing solutions to the workplace. We must talk about these things because only through conversations can perceptions be moulded for the betterment of the workplace.

Technology can help with ’’check-ins’’ at a click of a button – making it easier for employers and HR professionals to keep their eyes on the ball when it comes to depression in the workplace.

Tshepiso Chocho
Executive Manager People Management