Tuesday 10 October marked the 25th anniversary of World Mental Health Day. This day, and the rest of October, aims to support and raise awareness of mental health issues worldwide. The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines mental health as the state of well-being of an individual which allows them to realise their potential, cope with stresses of life, and work productively to contribute to society. According to the South African Federation for Mental Health (SAFMH), one quarter of people will experience a mental health problem at some point in their lives.

Each year a different theme is chosen for World Mental Health Day. This year the theme was “Mental health in the workplace.” WHO said that mental health in the workplace is imperative to the overall well-being of an individual, as most of our adult lives is spent in a work environment. According to WHO, employees with superiors who create initiatives to promote mental health show gains in health and productivity. On the other hand, a negative work environment may lead to “physical and mental health problems, harmful use of substances or alcohol, absenteeism and lost productivity”. In their report about World Mental Health Day 2017, the World Federation for Mental Health (WFMH) said that one in five people experience a mental health issue in the workplace.

Depression is one of the most common mental illnesses in one’s daily life and in the workplace. In fact, SAFMH said that it is estimated that 4.4% of the world’s population suffers from depression, and over 800 000 people take their lives annually, as a result of depression. The WFMH says that the impact of depression in the workplace is evident either in the form of presenteeism or absenteeism. The former means that an employee is “at work but not engaged, or productive” and the latter refers to the number of days taken off work by an employee. The WFMH state that 10% of the working population take off work due to depression. Additionally, cognitive symptoms of depression are present up to 94% during an episode. These cognitive symptoms often include difficulty in concentrating and making decisions as well as memory loss which, in turn, effects the productivity of an individual. “Despite these statistics, 50% of people who suffer from depression remain untreated”, says the WFMH.

Although work-related stress is not often considered a mental health issue by the public, it is “one of the biggest health and mental health challenges” and it contributes to half of annual absenteeism, says that the WFMH. According to the WFMH, stress can lead to burnout, which is a “condition based on the protracted depletion of an individual’s energies, often with reduced personal accomplishment, emotional exhaustion, and with insufficiency and depersonalisation”. Stress and burnout can be caused by a high work load, time pressure, work conflicts, bullying, lack of control and low job satisfaction.

Mental health issues such as depression and stress are not only detrimental to an individual, but also the economy. In fact, a World Economic Forum/Harvard School of Public Health study estimated that $16.3 trillion of economic output will be lost between 2011 and 2030 because of the impact of mental health disorders in the workplace. Despite mental illness affecting a sizeable portion of the population, stigma and discrimination of mental health issues continue to prevail. Stigma does not only lessen opportunities for employment for someone with a mental health issue, but also creates less supportive work environments. However, the WFMH has proposed ways in which employees and employers can create a more mental health-friendly environment, including “a commitment to building awareness and reducing stigma, in addition to promoting mental health and providing support for employees who need it.” Employers can achieve this by considering all qualified job applicants regardless of mental health issues, treating mental illness and physical illness with the same urgency, having programs which support and promote mental wellness and balance, providing training for managers to address mental health issues adequately, and supporting employees who seek treatment for mental health issues. To increase mental health on an individual level, the WFMH says that one can practice self-care and self-awareness, train your perception of mental health issues, engage in leisure activities, maintain social networks and try to balance work and family life.

Illustration: Rhodeen Davies

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