July is Mental Health Awareness Month. Employers should be aware that mental illness in the workplace can lead to decreased productivity, poor work quality, and even compromised workplace safety. Employers should take proactive steps to identify and manage mental illness in the workplace. As South Africa was placed in lockdown since 26 March 2020, to combat the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19), it is no wonder that, after a few weeks, many people have been experiencing heightened feelings of uncertainty, unrest and loneliness in this very uncertain time. These feelings can carry over once we all gradually return to work.
Implementing a safe and healthy work environment
Employers should thus be wary of not only the physical health of their employees but also their mental health. COVID-19 strategies should include mental wellbeing of employees. Employers are urged to take note of the applicable legislation and regulations for implementing a safe and healthy work environment.
The Occupational Health and Safety Act (hereinafter “The Act) states that every employer shall provide and maintain a safe working environment, and without risk, to the health of his/her employees. The Act places a general duty on employers to establish a work environment which is safe, and where employees can conduct their work without risk to their health (Section 8).
It would be beneficial for employers to invest in the mental health of their employees, to ensure a work environment which is not only safe from physical harm, but also mental and emotional distress. Knowledge is power and unfortunately, mental health issues are still poorly understood, and often surrounded by ignorance and fear. Employees may be wary of coming forward and disclosing their condition or speaking out about their emotional wellbeing as they may fear prejudice or stigma.
Help and empower your employees
There are various ways employers can help their employees and empower them to speak up:
- Educating employees on depression and other psychiatric disorders by either having short workshops in the workplace or giving employees information pamphlets;
- Where an employee discloses their mental condition or asks for assistance with their emotional wellbeing the employer can refer the employee to a professional and follow up to make sure that the employee receives treatment;
- Exploring and investigating creative ways to support an employee’s recovery, like flexible/adjusted working hours or alternate between working from home and working in the office.
- Designating an HR person or other qualified person for employees to report or disclose their emotional health, keeping in mind and notifying employees that it will be handled confidentially.
Employers faced with an employee who is suffering from mental health issues should provide as much support and help as reasonably possible and practical. The employee should also be provided with the opportunity to state his/her case and make recommendations on what he/she may need to help with the mental health and emotional wellbeing.
Together we can raise awareness on mental health in the workplace by speaking out. Always remember, you do not have to fight your battle alone!
Article written by Johan Bester at SEESA, a company that offers a range of business solutions and comprehensive legal services to any South African business owner or employer. SEESA is a proud partner of NSBC, Africa’s leading SME organisation and the fastest growing organisation of its kind in the world, committed to helping business owners and entrepreneurs become tomorrow’s business legends.