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Kay Vittee

Many people live with mental health problems and dealing with these illnesses in the workplace comes with a number of challenges. It is estimated that one in five South Africans will, or do, experience a form of mental illness in their lifetime – approximately the same numbers as that of Canada and the UK.

This is a large portion of the population, especially when considering that many people don't see psychological disorders as a ‘real illness’ like diabetes or cancer. People who live with depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and postnatal depression find it more difficult to secure employment compared to individuals who do not suffer from any of these conditions.

There are a number of factors for employers to consider:

• For people who have not been working for some time, re-employment is often difficult as they have to explain why there are gaps in their CV. It's difficult, on your job application form, to admit that you have a psychological disorder. Companies should encourage transparency in this regard – from day one.
• Although adequate treatment alleviates symptoms and improves productivity, in the short term, employees may need to take time off to attend clinical appointments or reduce their hours in order to recover.
• 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 entire workforce to better cope with stress.

The law in South Africa notes that an employee with a mental health condition has constitutional rights to equality, human dignity, fair labour practices and access to social security. Once in employment, an employer cannot demote or transfer a person, or reduce their salary because of their condition - this would constitute an unfair labour practice in terms of the Labour Relations Act.

The law is highly protective of people with psychological disorders, so it's in an employee's interest to disclose their condition. Once they do, the principle of ‘reasonable accommodation’ takes effect. This means, for example, that managers are sympathetic to requests for flexitime or for working in a quiet office.

Organisations need to send a clear signal to staff that their mental health matters - and being open about them - will lead to support, not discrimination. A simple way to communicate this would be to explain that mental health issues will be treated in the same way as physical health issues. You may also want to book an expert speaker to openly discuss these issues with your workforce, encourage acceptance and eliminate negative stigmas that may exist.

It is also vital to note that once diagnosed, the employee takes the appropriate steps to ensure their optimal productivity.

If approached by an employee who has chosen to share their mental illness diagnosis with you, Vittee advises employers keep this information confidential and discuss related matters in a private space.

Kay Vittee is the CEO of Quest Staffing Solutions and previously she worked at Absa. Kay is also a superb business leader who inspires her organisation to live the essence of superior customer service. Clients trust her judgement and will continue to include her in driving quality solutions for their businesses.