The cost of depression at work

Online since 22.03.2018 • Filed under Health • From Issue 7 - March to August 2018 page(s) 64-65
The cost of depression at work

In 2016, the IDEA study, carried out by the London School of Economics and Political Science found that depression costs South Africa more than R232 billion or 5.7% of the country’s GDP because of lost productivity, either through absence from work or attending work while unwell.

The stats relating to depression at work are significant and, because of this, last year’s World Mental Health Day focused on mental health in the workplace. Dr Sebolelo Seape, chairperson of the Psychiatry Management Group (PsychMG), says organisations and individuals need to become more aware of the reality and impact of mental health in the workplace.

‘With more than 9.7% of South Africans (or 4.5 million people) suffering from depression, the chances are that the person next to you in the office may be depressed. It’s the duty of individuals, organisations and colleagues to fight the stigma associated with mental health issues.’

Impact on productivity

Depression has a significant impact on productivity, which aggravates resultant problems at work relating to relationships with colleagues and line managers.

‘Depression causes memory problems, procrastination, extreme fatigue, difficulty concentrating, anxiety, fear and panic that add to work-related stresses and cripple the output from the employee.’

Dr Seape says that the cost of presenteeism, those at work while suffering from depression, has the most significant impact. It equates to a loss of 4.23% of the country’s GDP and, based on a world-wide study, the proportion lost to South Africa’s GDP is the highest in the world. ‘In South Africa, employees are likely to keep working during periods of depression, impacting their productivity and performance at work. This can be because they’re afraid of losing their jobs, being ostracised from colleagues, or that they lack mental health knowledge and don’t understand why they’re experiencing spells of being unwell,’ Dr Seape explains.


‘Even those who take a sick day here and there because they are not mentally up for it, are likely to be self-diagnosing and their perceived coping mechanism will draw negative attention. In addition, they could be losing out on the support structure offered by their employer, putting their career and relationships with colleagues at risk.’

She says that taking a few days off but only ending up sitting at home doing nothing will not help anyone cope when returning to work.

‘Although depression (except in severe, chronic and debilitating cases) is not a disability, it can cause impairment and have an impact on daily life from sleeping to work, concentrating, regulating emotions, or caring for oneself. It needs to be addressed via the correct channels. You need to work with your medical doctor and psychiatrist to determine the best treatment and how to manage your time off, special needs required at work or flexible working hours.

Discussing the issues with your line manager or human resources department and finding out the options available to you might alleviate a lot of the anxiety.’

A two-way street

‘You can’t expect the person suffering from depression to be the only one to be held accountable. The onus is on employees to seek help, discuss the situation with a line manager, HR manager or dedicated mental health staff member, and to comply with treatment, medication requirements and lifestyle changes. It is equally the responsibility of employers, who have a legal responsibility to the welfare of their staff. However, the fact that many employees in South Africa don’t report their depression to their employer is rather worrying.’

Legal protection

The law in South Africa states that an employee with a mental health condition has a constitutional right to equality, human dignity, reasonable accommodation and fair labour practice. An employer cannot demote, transfer or reduce the salary of a person because of a mental health condition.

The Employment Equity Act protects employees in the workplace but only to an extent. Since the act can’t possibly list all conditions, it leaves the employer with the power to decide which constitute a disability and which do not. Additionally, the ‘reasonable accommodation’ law that refers to flexi-time, a quiet office space, reduction in workload or increased support, is also based on the word ‘reasonable’. The law cannot prescribe to an organisation what is and what’s not reasonable. So, if the employee suffering from depression needs to receive special accommodation, the employer can simply say that, for example, their core business does not allow for flexible working hours, leaving the employee to either leave the employment or wait to be worked out,’ she adds.

‘Therefore, it’s up to the employer to decide how “serious” the condition is to warrant any form of accommodation. And although the law can legislate against discrimination it cannot rule against stigma. Many who suffer from depression fear that the disclosure of their condition makes them vulnerable and that they may lose their jobs or be the first to be selected during times of restructuring or retrenchment.

An accepting culture

Stigmatism is a culture that can only be changed from within an organisation, not enforced by the law.’

Dr Seape says workplace attitudes that promote acceptance and openness about depression would have a significant impact on improving workplace productivity while openness and support from managers will foster a socially-accepting attitude towards those suffering from depression.

‘If depression is continuously seen as a weakness and something that people make up to receive special treatment or paid days off work, or those suffering fear for their jobs, then neither the stigma associated with depression nor the lack in productivity and loss in revenue will change,’ she concludes. For more information, visit

Issue 7 - March to August 2018

Issue 7 - March to August 2018

This article was featured on page 64-65 of SABI Magazine Issue 7 - March to August 2018 .

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