By responding with suspicion when an employee chooses to disclose a mental illness, employers can seriously damage their staff relationships.
In South Africa, the Disability Code requires that alternative reasonable accommodation be made for disabled employees. Some examples of reasonable accommodation in the case of a mentally ill employee include more flexible hours, the option to work from home, time off for medical appointments and more depending on the individual’s needs and circumstances.
While these may sound like 'perks' they are in fact as vital to the well being of a employee with a mental illness, as they are to an employee with another disability, or illness. But due to the stigma attached to mental illness in South Africa (and globally), there are some who still think that mental illness is not a 'real thing' and who would deny reasonable accommodation to those who choose to disclose a mental illness.
While there may be a tiny number of people who attempt to claim disability benefits based on a feigned illness, the vast majority of people who claim to have a mental illness are genuinely suffering. And by responding with suspicion when hearing about an employee’s mental illness related work problems, employers can seriously damage their staff relationships.
Another consequence of this suspicion is that genuinely ill employees won't then come forward and get the help they need. Stigma plays a major role in the persistent suffering, disability and economic loss associated with mental illnesses.
Dr Ulla Botha, a psychiatrist at Stikland Hospital in Cape Town explains that "mental illness is an illness just like any other, that it is treatable, extremely common and nothing to be ashamed of. We are all at life's mercy and owe each other compassion."
Studies have found that it costs South Africa more to not treat mental illness than to address the issues. The expense includes costs related to the workplace, such as reduced productivity, absenteeism, staff turnover and loss of talented employees. Effectively, it costs more to replace a mentally ill employee than it does to assist them, yet employers underestimate the financial impact of mental illness on their business’ earning potential.
How to help a mentally ill employee
An employee can choose to get a note from their doctor confirming the prevalence of the condition, but the employer cannot insist. A medical certificate is not a legal requirement. These medical notes are used to support equity claims and tax claims.
If you suspect an employee is taking advantage of the system, and their sick leave allowance, read How to tell if a medical certificate is fake before approaching them.
In medicine, if a patient is trying to deceive someone by faking, feigning or exaggerating symptoms it is called “malingering”, and employers need to trust that the medical practitioner in question has the skills necessary to correctly diagnose their patient. Ethical doctors will not diagnose a patient with a mental illness unless they are certain the patient is indeed ill, and it is difficult to fool a trained mental health professional.
Whether an employee chooses to disclose their diagnosis or not, they must still be able to perform their job. If an employee refuses to disclose a mental illness, and consistently underperforms, then the same disciplinary processes may be followed, as for any other employee.
However, once an employee has voluntarily disclosed a mental illness, the company is compelled to make reasonable accommodation to assist and support the employee to get the help they need to perform well at work.
Written by Elizabeth Mamacos: Elizabeth currently serves as Editor at Careers24. She oversees a team of writers who specialise in career advice, and has a long history of both digital and print journalism. Elizabeth spends her free time studying and running after her toddler. If you would like to get in touch, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.