Written by Allison Cooper, for Public Sector Manager Magazine: July 2019

With over 9.7 percent of South Africa’s population suffering from depression, anxiety or both, the chance is high that one or more of your colleagues or employees is battling with one of these mental health conditions right now.

This is why workplaces that promote mental health and support people with mental health conditions are more likely to reduce absenteeism and increase productivity.

Corporate Wellness Week from 1 to 5 July provides an opportunity to take stock of how your colleagues are faring.

The best way to understand the difference between anxiety and depression is to look at the primary symptoms of each.

According to the Acting CEO of Weskoppies Hospital, Beulah Schoonwinkel, people with generalised anxiety disorder experience hard to control, excessive worrying about a variety of issues from health and family problems to money, school and work. “This results in physical and mental complaints, from muscle tension and restlessness to becoming easily tired and irritable, experiencing poor concentration and insomnia,” she said.

Those suffering from depression – which is defined as an excessively depressed mood, with significant impairment in social and occupational functioning – are miserable for at least two weeks, all day, every day. They feel sad, down or depressed; lose interest in nearly all of the activities they previously enjoyed; and experience other symptoms like fatigue, an inability to concentrate and feeling worthless or guilty. They could also have suicidal thoughts.

Create a healthy workplace

Managers and senior officials can help to create a heathy workplace by being aware of mental health conditions and knowing where people can find help.

They can also inform staff that support is available; involve employees in decision-making, thus conveying a feeling of control and participation; support a healthy work-life balance; and recognise and reward employees’ contributions.

Many other initiatives can help individuals with mental health conditions, including flexible working hours, job-redesign, addressing negative workplace dynamics, and supportive and confidential communication with management.

Because of the stigma associated with mental health disorders, employers and managers need to ensure that individuals feel supported and are able to ask for help.

“Depression causes problems with memory, procrastination, extreme fatigue, difficulty concentrating, anxiety, fear and panic, which add to work-related stresses, crippling the output from the employee,” said Dr Sebolelo Seape, the chairperson of the Psychiatry Management Group, during Mental Health Awareness Month in October last year.

“In South Africa, employees are very likely to keep working during periods of depression, impacting their productivity and performance at work. This can be due to fear of losing their jobs, being ostracised by colleagues or a lack of mental health knowledge,” he said.

It’s thus important that managers and colleagues assist each other and also educate other employees about depression and anxiety. It’s particularly important to reassure them that these illnesses can be treated.

To get help for anxiety or depression, visit your doctor who can refer to you a psychologist or psychiatrist if needed. You can also contact the SA Depression and Anxiety Group at 011 234 4837; the suicide emergency line at 0800 567 567; or Lifeline’s 24-hour helpline at 0861 322 322.