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Coping with Depression in the Workplace

As a South African employer, there are proactive steps that you can take to manage depression in your organisation and provide support for your employees.


According to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), as many as one in six South Africans suffer from anxiety, depression or substance-use problems. In the workplace, depression not only affects the employee, but the organisation as well through decreased productivity, absenteeism, poor work quality and compromised workplace safety.


Depression is a serious mental illness that affects cognitive functioning such as decision-making, concentration, memory and problem solving abilities. As a result, an employee with depression will be less productive than his or her colleagues, due to forgetfulness, indecisiveness, sadness and the inability to focus.


Unfortunately, mental health problems carry a certain stigma due to a lack of understanding and poor education so many employees will choose to keep quiet, rather than speaking out for fear of being treated differently. However, if an employee seems withdrawn, cries a lot, or takes prolonged sick leave, there’s a good chance that depression is the cause.


As an employer, the responsibility falls on you to ensure that employees feel comfortable enough to seek help. Take the time to introduce the following policies and procedures that will offer support to those affected by mental ill health so you can retain the services of your valuable employees.


  1. Educate

Educate your employees about depression. Ensure that they are aware of the illness, the warning signs and how its cognitive symptoms can affect work performance. Your employees may not even realise they have it, which makes it impossible for them to seek help.


  1. Raise awareness

Do you have any existing employee assistance programmes in place? Tell your employees about them and emphasise how they can help with mental health problems, like depression. A framework of support will go a long way towards helping your employees cope.


  1. Create the right atmosphere

Create and promote a culture of acceptance around depression and other psychiatric disorders by ensuring that employees are aware that these illnesses are no different to other ailments, such as diabetes or asthma. Your employees must know that depression can be treated.

Encourage employees to talk about their depression in a caring and confidential setting. Reassure them that everything they talk about will be kept private – and make sure that this is the case.


  1. Get professional support

Have access to a list of reliable healthcare professionals so that if and when an employee has the courage to speak out about their struggle with depression, you can refer them to a professional.


  1. Be flexible

Look at alternative ways of supporting an employee’s recovery, such as flexible working hours or working from home for a certain period of time. This will provide necessary care for the employee and the organisation won’t suffer the effects of prolonged absenteeism. Also, reassure your employee that they are valued and that they have your unwavering support.

  1. Observe

Be cognisant of other factors that may be causing depression within the organisation, such as bullying, sexual harassment, an unreasonable workload or a lack of job satisfaction. If these issues are present, they will need to be dealt with immediately.


  1. Listen

If your organisation is experiencing financial uncertainty, realise that your employees are most likely under a significant amount of stress, which could lead to anxiety and depression. Be sensitive to this and listen to any concerns your employees may have about organisational changes. You may be able to put their minds at rest.


Clinical depression is an illness that can seriously affect a person’s life. Ensure that you create a company culture of understanding and acceptance so that your valuable employees can perform at their best.

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