Suspect an employee has a mental illness? Here's how to help

Be aware that the individual may not be ready or willing to talk about it.

About 16.5% of the adult population in South Africa suffers from mental illness, so you need to know how to help a mentally ill employee.

Stigma plays a major role in the persistent suffering, disability and economic loss associated with mental illnesses. Stigmatising beliefs reported in South Africa include beliefs that people with mental illness are bewitched, weak, faking it, lazy, incapable and even dangerous.  

It is these beliefs that cause many to keep their condition to themselves, and while some are easier to hide than others, their diagnosis is likely to impact their work performance at some point - just as any other illness would. 

Read: If you don’t have a mental illness, your colleague does 

Workplace behaviours such as these may indicate the presence of a mental illness, but all of the behaviours are also indicators of other life stressors, so never make assumptions about an employee’s mental health:

·         frequent absenteeism and late coming

·         unexplained displays of hostility and irritability

·         difficulty concentrating or making decisions

·         withdrawing or appearing devoid of emotion

A manager’s role is to monitor absenteeism, address work quality and manage productivity levels, so if a team member is violating their work agreements, and you suspect that this employee is struggling with a mental health issue you may approach them privately, express concern and encourage them to seek help. Alternatively, ask an HR representative to do this.

Be aware that the individual may not be ready or willing to talk about it.

When you approach the employee, stay calm and clear when talking about their workplace behaviour. Keep your descriptions of their actions behaviour- or performance-based, to help reduce the employee’s defensiveness. Be prepared to suggest resources such as the company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or the individual’s family physician which may assist the employee to seek help.

Learn: How to tell if a medical certificate is fake 

Managers and HR representatives may follow up with the employee after this conversation, but it is inappropriate to ask if they have been given a diagnosis or sought counseling. This constitutes an invasion of their privacy.

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. 

Additionally, including an employee’s mental illness status has a strong impact on a company’s B-BBEE scorecard, encouraging disability equity which also serves to dispel workplace stigmas. 

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