The optimal management of mental illness and depression by EAP Practitioners 

In South Africa mental illness in the workplace is classified as a disability.  It is described in the Employment Equity Act, as those who have a long-term or recurring physical, including sensory or mental impairment which substantially limits their prospect of entry into or advancement in employment.

About 16.5% of the adult population in South Africa suffers from mental illness, including depression and anxiety.  If you work in a large organisation there is a good chance that you are working with someone who suffers from depression. When it comes to the impact of mental health in the workplace, it presents several realities that organisational leaders simply cannot ignore. Five of the 10 leading causes of disability worldwide are mental problems.  These include major depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorders, alcohol use and obsessive-compulsive disorders. Along with anxiety, depression and stress, these have a large impact on any working population and should be addressed within this context, particularly as unattended they may also develop into long-term disorders with accompanying forms of disability.1

Statistics such as these have led to a growing awareness, and have quite rightly become a topic of conversation at management and executive level.  Equipped with a better understanding of the negative impact that mental health issues can have on their organisation’s bottom line, an increasing number of employers are focusing on mental health as a critical component within their employee health management strategy.

Given the stigma that surrounds mental illness, an employee may be reluctant to discuss their condition with their superior.  It is important to pay attention to your employees’ workplace behaviour as this may indicate that they could be struggling with a mental health issue. These behaviours may include:  increased errors in work, decreased productivity, increased sick days, a decline in dependability, regularly arriving at work late, or a lack of enthusiasm.2

A well constructed employee assistance program (EAP) with the correct focus is still the most effective tool to impact the emotional wellbeing and productivity of employees while lowering health care costs.

  • EAPs provide support, care and advocacy for employees suffering from depression: In the workplace EAP is also a valuable preventative tool in that it can address any issues that fuel stress and impact on employee mental health before the development of more serious conditions of mental illness.
  • EAPs have a positive and measurable impact on employee productivity: Companies with effective EAPs also save costs by assisting current employees and increasing their productivity.   South African research conducted in 2014, and involving over 1 000 employed/previously employed workers or managers in the country proved that depression is not simply a bad mood – or a bad attitude. 74% of respondents reported experiencing one or more of the following symptoms the last time they were depressed:  trouble concentrating, forgetfulness and indecisiveness.2
  • EAPs reduce unscheduled employee absences: The World Health Organisation (WHO) predicts that by 2020, depression alone will cause more days of work loss and work impairment than any other illness. Providing support through EAP programmes can help employees deal with mental health issues that are affecting their attendance. This kind of support can not only help employees through a difficult time, but it also makes them feel valued and that their employer cares about them – a key determining factor of employee retention.


Implementing return-to-work strategies for employees who have been off on protracted leave of absence

Returning to work after a long absence due to physical or mental health can be a daunting prospect for employees, sometimes accompanied by a loss of confidence or hindered by slow recovery after medical treatment. However, awareness is increasing that a well-supported return to the workplace routine can assist greatly in a person’s full recovery and promote their mental wellbeing.

Developing a policy for RTW reflects your company’s commitment to help employees get back to work after an injury or illness.  It lets your employees know that your organisation is serious about their health and well-being, and that if a disabling event occurs that the company will consider transitional work options deemed appropriate and approved by their treatment provider. A Return to Work (RTW) plan needs to be responsive to both the needs of the person and the organisation. It is important from an employer’s perspective to be realistic about what reasonable accommodations the specific workplace can make.

Employers need to consider, in consultation with the employee:

  • the type of work the person is doing,
  • the severity of the employee’s situation,
  • other factors specific to the employee, such as their general state of health, age, access to support and treatment, adjustment to the situation,
  • other factors specific to the workplace, such as levels of flexibility to accommodate changes, sick leave, return to work policies.

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Contributor: Patrick Egan

Contributor: Patrick Egan

EAPA-SA Board Member: Western Cape Chapter Chairperson

Patrick Egan is a registered Occupational Social Worker with an MSocSc degree in Social Development from the University of Cape Town.  Mr Egan has been in the EAP industry for an excess of 25 years and is a Head of EAP at the City of Cape Town.  Mr Egan is the EAPA-SA Western Cape Chapter Chairperson since 2009.  His professional interests are varied including Stress, Lifestyle Management,  LGBTI and gender issues.