More than 40% of all work-related illness is due to work-related stress, major depression, burnout and anxiety disorders. Picture: Pexels

One in four employees has been diagnosed with depression, and the country’s economic contributors aged 25 to 44 are most affected, taking more than 18 days off work due to the condition. 

These are the findings from a recent study conducted by The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) in partnership with Hexor, with the support of Lundbeck.

Dr Renata Schoeman, leadership lecturer at the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB) and psychiatrist says more than 40% of all work-related illness is due to work-related stress, major depression, burnout and anxiety disorders.

Presenting at a Corporate Mental Health Awareness seminar at USB, she urged companies to realise the significance their company structure, expectations of employees and management style has on the company’s annual turn-over, overall productivity and the risk of employees developing health problems that could prevent them temporarily or permanently reentering the workforce.

She highlighted that the 2016 study revealed that non-disclosure of depression as a reason for sick leave was predominantly due to stigma and fear of not being able to secure their employment.

“Undiagnosed and untreated mental health conditions directly impacts a workplace through increased absenteeism and presenteeism (attending work while unwell), reduces productivity and increases costs. Most employers tend to completely underestimate the financial impact of mental illness on their bottom line,” she said.

Schoeman said that leaders are more prone to presenteeism and are less able to cope the demands of their position.

“The cognitive symptoms of depression, such as difficulties in concentrating, making decisions and remembering, are present 94% of the time during an episode of depression. Since leaders find themselves in roles of decision-making and responsibility, they are more prone to presenteeism. They would be less able to cope with the demands of their position and as a leader their condition whilst at work would have a major impact on inter-office relationships, decision-making and their ability to manage their teams.

Schoeman highlighted that companies need to play an active role in fostering a healthy working environment, providing a support system and breaking stigmas attached to workplace depressions. 

“It’s imperative that companies come to understand the leading role they play in alleviating and eradicating possible stressors at work. They should foster a healthy educational environment with pro-active mental health awareness programmes, stress management training, access to services which nurture help-seeking behaviour, implement a coaching or counseling programme, identify people in need of care and offer them resources to ensure they receive proper treatment. But most importantly they need to break the negative association with depression, burnout and anxiety.”

Dr Schoeman says that although policies and guidelines are necessary it alone will not make a difference but requires a supportive culture of understanding and acceptance.

“Stigma, born out of ignorance, prejudice or fear, is a major problem in the work place creating a situation where employees choose to rather suffer in silence. One can understand their reluctance to seek support or report their condition, especially in the current economic climate where they might fear losing their job. As a result mental health problems often go undiagnosed and untreated, not only to the detriment of the individual’s career and health but also directly impacting the workplace’s bottom line.”

She says mental health awareness in the work place will ensure early identification and treatment of disorders, prevent recurrence and long-term complications.