The use of anti-depressants in South Africa has increased by more than 50% over the last five years. This, together with the classification of some mental illnesses as disabilities, is resulting in organisations having to rethink how they approach the recruitment process, says Nicol Myburgh, Head of the HR Business Unit at CRS Technologies.

Some companies specifically recruit people with disabilities because it counts towards their employment equity and BEE rating, but not every individual is forthcoming about their mental illness.

“If a potential employee who has been diagnosed with a mental illness that could impact their work performance does not disclose it if asked during the appointment process, the company could have grounds for termination later. However, because employees cannot be discriminated against because of their disability, the reason for their dismissal would therefore be the material impact the disability has on the job and the fact that they misrepresented themselves,” Myburgh notes.

From a legal perspective, the Employment Equity Act (EEA) protects people with disabilities against unfair discrimination in the workplace. The Disability Code of Good Practice sets out key aspects on the employment of people with disabilities. Ultimately, it comes down to how the impairment affects a person’s ability to work.

Enabling environment

“For its part, an organisation can take several steps to assist employees who are suffering from a mental illness,” says Myburgh. “This can include the likes of allowing additional sick leave, providing moral support, offering flexible work hours, and even offering the services of a psychologist or psychiatrist.

“Should the employee’s condition worsen, the ‘reasonable accommodation’ must be adjusted. If necessary, the company should consult with appropriate experts at its own cost. Based on their assessment, working time and leave could be adjusted, specialised support could be provided, and training and supervision in the workplace can be offered.

“This all depends on the employee and the degree to which the illness affects their performance. In other words, it must be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. There is no one-size-fits-all approach that can work in this regard.”

Companies must always be guided by the affect an illness has on the business. Employees who are appointed with an existing illness must be accommodated. “If the situation becomes operationally intolerable, termination can be considered. It is all about whether the person can perform their job function or not,” Myburgh adds.

Be compassionate

“Companies would do well to become more compassionate employers,” she continues. “They must remember that they are dealing with people. If person is about to have a breakdown, find out why and provide support wherever possible. If someone is crying at the office every day, something is wrong, so ask the question.”

Although employees with mental health issues can potentially impact others in the workplace, this is where support comes in.

“Each individual must be treated and managed in accordance with their unique needs. A company should be guided by what works best in a specific situation. Also, the services of a reputable outsourced HR services provider can go a long way towards ensuring the business does everything it can to support employees suffering from mental illnesses effectively and respectfully,” Myburgh concludes.