LIFESTYLE
24/04/2018 15:28 SAST | Updated 26/04/2018 12:14 SAST

1 In 4 SA Employees Is Depressed [And What Employers Can Do About It]

Depression costs South Africa more than R232-billion per year – or 5.7 percent of the country’s GDP – due to lost productivity.

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One in four South African employees has been diagnosed with depression and taken more than 18 days off work due to the mental health condition. Most affected are men and women aged between 25 and 44.

These findings are from a study that was conducted by The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag) in partnership with Hexor and Lundbeck.

Psychiatrist Dr Renata Schoeman said more than 40 percent of all work-related illness is due to work-related stress, major depression, burnout and anxiety disorders.

Undiagnosed and untreated mental-health conditions directly impact a workplace through increased absenteeism and presenteeism.

Schoeman highlighted the SADAG 2016 study that revealed that nondisclosure of depression as a reason for sick leave, was predominantly due to stigma and fear of not being able to secure employment.

The cost of depression

"Undiagnosed and untreated mental-health conditions directly impact a workplace through increased absenteeism and presenteeism — attending work while unwell but not being productive — which reduces productivity and increases costs. Most employers tend to completely underestimate the financial impact of mental illness on their bottom line."

Depression costs South Africa more than R232-billion or 5.7 percent of the country's GDP due to lost productivity, either due to absence from work or attending work whilst unwell, according to a 2017 study by the London School of Economic and Political Science.

"The cognitive symptoms of depression, such as difficulties in concentrating, making decisions and remembering, are present 94 percent of the time during an episode of depression," Schoeman pointed out.

How companies can respond

Insurance and employee benefits solutions company Aon's 2018 EMEA Health Survey found that although many employers recognise the role they have to play in influencing good employee health, most are not employing strategies that best enable these outcomes.

The survey, which covered more than 900 employers across the region, in 25 industries, covering 2.7-million employees, found among other things that:

  • Only 40 percent of employers say they have a defined health strategy in place, the same as 2016, and even fewer — 36 percent — have a clear view of the impact, including cost, of the health issues in their organisation.
  • Only 22 percent of employers use data to support their health and wellbeing strategy, and just 17 percent of South African employers measure ongoing success of their health programmes.
  • Less than 40 percent of employers rate their health and benefits communication to employees as good.

Schoeman emphasised the importance of companies understanding the leading role they play in alleviating and eradicating possible stressors at work.

Stigma, born out of ignorance, prejudice or fear, is a major problem in the workplace, creating a situation where employees choose to rather suffer in silence.

"The data suggests that in reality, employers really need to challenge themselves around whether they are doing enough to protect the health and wellbeing of their top assets. It is time to shift from positive intentions to measured investment, changing communication strategies to better support employees," said Andrew Cunningham, commercial leader at EMEA at Aon.

"They should foster a healthy educational environment with proactive mental-health awareness programmes, stress management training, access to services that nurture help-seeking behaviour, implement a coaching or counselling programme, identify people in need of care and offer them resources to ensure they receive proper treatment," recommended Schoeman.

She also pointed out that employers have a role to play in breaking the negative association with depression, burnout and anxiety.

"Stigma, born out of ignorance, prejudice or fear, is a major problem in the workplace, 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, when they might fear losing their job," she said.

Ultimately, Schoeman cautioned, mental-health problems — which often go undiagnosed and untreated — are not only to the detriment of an individual's career, but also directly impact a workplace's bottom line.

This is why she suggested companies proactively implement employee-assistance programmes — for the quality of life of their employees, the longevity of the company and the country's GDP.