Good mental health is imperative in corporations large or small. Mental ill-health is one of the most debilitating and under-diagnosed illnesses in the workplace and, if undetected can have serious and tragic consequences. Let us investigate more about mental health and the role HR professionals can play in ensuring employees enjoy good mental health.
Mental health and the pandemic
During the pandemic, studies indicated that around 20-25% of patients with pre-existing mental health issues, felt they are coping badly or deteriorating. Social distancing, financial burdens and loss of lives have been detrimental and the negative impact on everyone is still unfolding. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), depression is one of the most common mental disorder and affects more than 264 million people world-wide. The impact of Covid has only made this worse.
This has a massive effect on employers as they try to cope with keeping their businesses going, preventing job losses and maintaining a happy and motivated workforce. The economic uncertainty, political instability and poor socio-economic conditions in South Africa have also added to the burden of mental health issues in South Africa.
We all know healthy employees are happier ones and studies have shown that mental illness is one of the main causes of unhappiness in the workplace. However, it is also a negative contributor to the economy. In terms of productivity, people who are mentally ill (even for a short period) become seriously unproductive. However, when they are successfully treated, there are substantial gains in productivity which exceed the cost of interventions. Treating mental health issues could save national income per head by 5%. That equates to billions worldwide.
970 million people globally have a mental health or substance abuse disorder. A recent study by the Global Happiness Council (GHC) shows that mental illness is the main illness among people of working age. If members of staff are suffering from mental illness, the knock-on effect is that employers lose valuable working days, as sick leave days, from even more valuable employees.
Even though it is not necessarily a work issue that triggers or causes a mental illness, people do worry about work issues. Promotions, performance evaluations, redundancy, bullying and sexual harassment in the workplace can set it in motion.
Mental illness is a complex issue and the HR team need to identify when someone is struggling and know how to deal with it. It is important that employees feel comfortable in the workplace and that they are supported by their team. HR Managers are a very important link between all members of staff and need to monitor the wellbeing of employees, even if the issues are not work related.
So, what is the role of HR Managers in combatting or assisting employees with mental illness?
- It’s important that employees are educated on the various forms of mental disorders by either providing them with written information or by holding mini workshops
- If employees confide in their employer or HR manager about their mental condition, they should be referred to a professional and supported in the workplace
- Being supportive and finding ways to support employees’ recovery, whether it’s a shorter week or working from home on certain days
- Knowing you have immediate support is important for employees suffering from mental ill-health. HR managers should designate a person who is qualified as a mentor and someone who the employee is comfortable confiding in
What is mental illness?
Part of the reason many struggle to understand mental health is that they don’t know what it actually means. There are, to date, 200 classified forms of mental illness. It is defined as any behavioural or mental pattern that causes significant distress or impairs one’s normal functioning. It can occur as a once off episode, be persistent or recur. The most common are depression and anxiety but there are quite a few more which affect people’s ability to work or hold down a job at all. These include eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), bipolar mood disorder; psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia and personality disorders. Substance abuse, such as drugs and alcohol, is also classified under mental illness.
It is a medical condition
It affects the way a person experiences and behaves in the world around them and is a recognised medical condition in the same way as diabetes and high blood pressure.
The link between mental and physical health
According to Harvard Medical School, poor mental health can negatively impact on physical health, leading to an increased risk of some conditions. Depression has been linked to a 67% increased risk of death from heart disease and a 50% increase in risk of death from cancer. This is mainly because people with mental ill-health are less likely to receive the physical and medical healthcare to which they are entitled.
Battling the stigma
The Mental Health Society says that the social stigma attached to mental ill-health and the discrimination exacerbates the patients’ condition. It often prevents people from seeking treatment. And, if they do, makes it harder to recover.
Recognising the signs
These can vary but, in general, an employee may display any of these symptoms:
- Being frequently sad, depressed and gloomy for long periods
- Feeling overwhelmed by life’s problems
- Major changes in eating habits resulting in weight loss or gain
- Struggling to concentrate and make decisions
- Loss of energy and lack of motivation
- Constant stress and anxiety
- Emotionally distant
- Frequently tearful
- Loss of interest in activities
- Being easily irritated and more aggressive than usual
- Signs of drug or alcohol abuse may also be a sign of underlying mental illness
The Mental Health Programme (MHP) from Bonitas, which forms part the Fund’s Managed Care initiatives, is aimed at improving quality of life and empowering people with mental ill-health issues to manage their conditions. It empowers members through education and offers support for loved ones too.
Mental illness is not a sign of weakness and cannot be wished away. We can’t expect someone to ‘pull themselves together’, they simply cannot. But with the right support and help, symptoms will be relieved and the recovery rate is encouraging with patients getting back to being happier, more productive members of society.