How to address mental health in the workplace - Preparing you for the future of work.

How to address mental health in the workplace

According to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), one in five South Africans will experience a form of a mental illness in their lifetime.

October has been declared Mental Health Awareness Month with the objective of reducing the stigma and discrimination surrounding mental health illness. Mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse and job stress affect many employees — a fact that is usually overlooked because these disorders tend to be hidden at work. It is vital that mental health is entrenched into wellness programmes offering employees supportive and confidential assistance.

The World Health Organisation defines health as a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease. So it is important that employers ensure that their employees are truly healthy across all spheres not only for healthier employees, but also for the company's financial health.

According SADAG, less than 16% of sufferers receive treatment for mental health illness.

Due to the stigma attached many employees may be reluctant to seek treatment, especially in the current economic climate  out of fear that they might jeopardize their jobs, so very few South Africans seek treatment for their mental disorders.

As a result, mental health disorders often go unrecognised and untreated, not only damaging an individual's health and career, but also directly impacting a workplace through increased absenteeism, reduced productivity, and increased costs.

Employees who were depressed at work were reportedly five times less productive than employees who were not depressed.

Mental health problems are the result of a complex interplay between biological, psychological, social and environmental factors. There is increasing evidence that both the content and context of work can play a role in the development of mental health problems (in the workplace).

The ‘healthier’ the work environment, the healthier the employees. Just like with physical illness, the symptoms and severity of an illness can worsen in tense and unhappy work environments. An employee wellness programme is beneficial for your employees to better cope with stress.

High stress levels have been linked to mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety, and can also lead to substance abuse. In severe cases, these problems can lead to a person becoming suicidal.

South Africa already has high rates of substance abuse and the South African Association of Social Workers in Private Practice estimates that up to half of all workplace accidents are related to substance abuse.

Employee wellness programmes need to be proactive and promote the mental health of workers, and to ensure that mental health problems are recognised early and treated effectively.

Employees and employers should think of mental health care as an investment, one that's worth the up-front time and cost. And as a country we need to talk openly about mental health to remove any residual stigma and ensure we have a healthy and productive nation.

Wellness programmes are no longer a "nice to have" in the workplace but have become a cornerstone in maintaining a healthy and productive workforce. Employers of choice have well-entrenched wellness programmes that are tailor-made for their specific population.

Dr Fathima Docrat is a Medical Advisor at Alexander Forbes Health.

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