Press release: Mental Health Awareness Month – Focusing on Mental Health in the Workplace

Every year October is commemorated as Mental Health Awareness month, and this year the theme chosen by the World Federation for Mental Health is Mental Health in the Workplace. At a global level, one-in-four people will likely experience a mental health problem at some point in their lives. Worldwide over 300 million people are estimated to have depression, equivalent to 4.4% of the world’s population, and 800,000 people take their own lives each year.

The economic consequences of poor mental health are equally significant. A World Economic Forum/Harvard School of Public Health study estimated that the cumulative global impact of mental disorders in terms of lost economic output will amount to $16.3 trillion between 2011 and 2030.

According to the WFMH, globally:

  • 10% of the employed population have taken time off work for depression
  • An average of 36 workdays are lost per depression episode
  • 50% of people with depression do not receive treatment
  • Cognitive symptoms of depression, such as difficulties in concentrating, making decisions and remembering, are present up to 94% of the time during an episode of depression, causing significant impairment in work function and productivity
  • Studies have shown that just $1 of investment in treatment for depression and anxiety leads to a return of $4 in better health and ability to work
  • 6 in 10 people say poor mental health impacts their concentration at work
  • Mental health conditions cost employers more than $100 billion and 217 million lost workdays each year

The last large scale national mental health study conducted in South Africa found that one-in-three people are likely to experience a mental health illness during the course of their lifetime. According to Statistics South Africa, employee absenteeism costs the South African economy between R12 billion and 16 billion annually, a large portion of which can be attributed to workplace stress, burn-out and employee ill health. In 2015, a study by Bloomberg ranked South Africa as the second most stressed nation on the planet. A similar study conducted by Ipsos Global and Reuters found that as many as 53% of SA’s working population are not taking their annual leave, resulting in increased stress and eventual burnout.  These statistics highlight the fact that mental health in the workplace is a subject South African’s should be paying attention to.

The workplace is the most important environment to discuss mental health and illness, yet it is the last place we typically hear about it. Employees are afraid of discussing it with co-workers and bosses. They don’t want to lose their jobs, damage relationships or risk future employers learning of illnesses and judging them. The stigma of mental illness keeps them silent.

Employers have the opportunity to change this climate of fear regarding mental health at the workplace and become agents of change. By addressing mental health issues in the workplace and investing in mental health care for workers, employers can increase productivity and employee retention. Untreated mental disorders in employees can result in diminished productivity at work, reduced rates of labour participation, foregone tax based income, increase in workplace accidents, and higher staff turnover.

There are however a number of steps that organisations can take to support their employee’s mental health. The risk factors for stress in the workplace can be modified, and an organisational climate that promotes wellbeing and creativity can be developed by targeting workplace policies as well as the needs of individual employees. Similarly, effective treatments exist for common mental disorders, and an employer can facilitate access to care to those who may need it.

Some ways employers and organisations can prioritise and support mental health:  

  • Protect work-life balance. Policies for flexible hours, teleworking, care leave, last minute days off can all help ease the combination of working and caring. Beyond these policies, promote work life balance in your organizational culture: respect regular working hours and safeguard leisure and family time
  • Combat stigma. Promote a workspace which fosters positive mental health and do not tolerate stigmatisation. Train your Human Resources (HR) personnel and managers on how to promote mental health in the workplace
  • Celebrate awareness days. On World Schizophrenia Day, World Mental Health Day, World Suicide Prevention Day, etc., share a message supporting the colleagues who are dealing with mental ill health in their daily lives
  • Start the conversation. You don’t have to wait till awareness days to start a conversation about mental health. Speaking up about your own story related to mental health sends the strongest message that it’s safe for others to do so as well.
  • Regularly inform your employees on the services that you have available to them. Do you have someone in HR on call for emergency mental health calls? Does your company’s health insurance plan cover access to services and care?

The protection of mental health at work has more impact if it focuses on preventive strategies. It is essential to handle the causes and the consequences of work-related stress with a combination of both collective and individual measures. Creating a mental health friendly workplace can help to prevent employees from experiencing burnout and other mental health problems.

The mental health-friendly workplace:

  • Welcomes all qualified job applicants; diversity is valued
  • Includes health care that treats mental illnesses with the same urgency as physical illnesses
  • Has programs and practices that promote and support employee health-wellness and/or work-life balance
  • Provides training for managers and front-line supervisors in mental health workplace issues, including identification of performance problems that may indicate worker distress and possible need for referral and evaluation
  • Safeguards confidentiality of employee health information
  • Provides an Employee Assistance Program or other appropriate referral resources to assist managers and employees
  • Supports employees who seek treatment or who require hospitalization and disability leave, including planning for return to work
  • Ensures “exit with dignity” as a corporate priority, should it become essential for an employee to leave employment

SAFMH calls on Government and the private sector to invest in corporate wellness and mental wellbeing, and to ensure that metal health receives the funding, resources and prioritisation it deserves.  SAFMH would also like to ask all sectors of society to focus on mental health and wellbeing within the context of their individual workplaces, and to work together to support and protect the mental health and dignity of those around us.


Marthé Kotze

Programme Manager: Information & Awareness

SA Federation for Mental Health


011 781 1852

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s