How employers should manage mental health related issues in the workplace

Managers should treat staff with mental health issues carefully and fairly, say Webber Wentzel’s associates.

By Dhevarsha Ramjettan (pictured), Nivaani Moodley, Siya Ngcamu, and Shane Johnson.

Depression is one of the most prevalent mental health issues among employees. According to the World Health Organisation, approximately 350 million people suffer from depression around the world; in South Africa, prevalence is estimated to be around 27 percent.

It is also estimated that employee absenteeism on account of depression costs the South African economy approximately R19 billion annually.

From a labour law perspective, the Labour Appeal Court (LAC) in the Jansen judgment* accepted that depression should be looked at as a form of ill health within the workplace environment.

In terms of managing employees with mental health issues, employers should adopt a proactive approach which would include:

  • Educating employees on mental health issues and how it may impact their work performance or conduct,
  • Training managers on how to identify signs of mental health issues from employees at an early stage in order to provide the necessary interventions as soon as possible,
  • Supporting employees by maintaining regular communication with them, and
  • Encouraging employees to use their annual leave to rest and recuperate from time to time.

Notably, employers should guard against disciplining or prejudicing employees who suffer from mental health related issues. When an employer identifies any sign of such issues, they should first consider an informal approach in assisting the employee as far as is reasonably practicable.

This may include granting the employee time off in the form of sick/annual leave and/or providing counselling, such as the counselling services inherent in many Employee Assistance Programmes.

This will not only be beneficial to the employee’s well-being but will also maintain their good work performance and good conduct in the workplace. If an employer does not have an Employee Assistance Programme, employers should educate employees on institutions such as the South African Depression and Anxiety Group.

Many employees suffer in silence and may be afraid to disclose their mental health issues to their employer for fear of being prejudiced or stigmatised in the workplace.

To alleviate these fears, employers should create an environment that is free for employees to disclose their mental health issues before it has a negative impact on their work performance, or results in inappropriate conduct in the workplace.

In turn, employees should be open regarding their mental health issues as many employers may be able to provide them with the necessary assistance.

Where, however, a mental health-related issue persists, and consequently affects work performance or conduct, it may result in the termination of their employment due to incapacity.

Insofar as depression is concerned, the LAC in Jansen expressed that depression that results in an employee becoming incapacitated may be a legitimate reason for terminating the employment relationship, provided that a fair procedure is followed by the employer.

The Code of Good Practice: Dismissal places an obligation on an employer to ascertain whether the employee can perform the work for which s/he was employed.

If the employee is unable to perform their normal duties fully, the employer must establish the extent of the employee's incapacity and its likely duration.

In Jansen, the LAC confirmed that if an employee is temporarily unable to work for a prolonged period due to depression, the employer must investigate and consider alternatives short of dismissal before resorting to dismissal.

If the depression (or other mental health issue) is likely to impair the employee's performance permanently, the employer must attempt first to reasonably accommodate the employee’s disability, for instance, ascertaining whether alternative work can be found for the employee, even if it is at reduced remuneration.

In addition to the above, procedural fairness will entail that the employee has been properly counselled and the impact of their mental health issues on their performance or conduct has been discussed with them.

An employee must also be provided with a fair opportunity to contest the employer's conclusions about their mental health issues.