By Wilma Bedford
Naomi Osaka, the tennis superstar who withdrew from the French Open after being fined because she boycotted a news conference, drew attention to mental health issues caused by stress in the workplace – in her case by the media in the sports world. Osaka, who also suffers from depression, chose to prioritise her own wellbeing. She shifted the spotlight to personal mental wellbeing and the responsibility of employers towards employees’ mental health, as well as the arbitrary standards reigning in the workplace, for example breaking a leg is acceptable, but to be mentally ill is inexcusable.
Regardless of what kind of work you do, your work can influence your mental health.
From an opinion poll conducted by Mental Health America, it would appear that 71% of the labour force concurred that their workplace influences their mental health and that women carry a disproportional stress load. In South Africa the picture is also anything but rosy, with one out of six South Africans who, according to the findings of the South African Drugs and Anxiety Group (SADAG), suffers from anxiety disorder or depression or is drug-dependent. Depression in itself causes exhaustion, memory problems, procrastination, anxiety and an impact on productivity as well as human relationships.
It has also been found that 10% (4.5 million) of the South African labour force suffers from depression, with work uncertainty, artificial intelligence and higher work expectations being the factors giving rise thereto. Because there is a stigma attached to depression, employees aren’t inclined to discuss possible solutions or managing the condition with their supervisors.
Given that in his or her lifetime the average person will spend 90 000 hours in the workplace, it can be expected that the workplace will have an influence on his or her mental health.
Do you feel that your work influences your mental health negatively and what can you do about it?
Determine the crux of your problem; in this way you can plan a strategy around the problem and try to find a solution. Start by keeping a journal of your feelings and highlight the tasks and interactions that cause your negative emotions.
Evaluate how you feel regarding your work; are you losing interest in your work and is your productivity declining? Do you dread going to work, do you feel anxious, do you avoid social activities and communication with others, do your personal relationships with family and friends suffer and is your conversation with yourself negative? Is there something specific in the workplace that causes this feeling or do you suffer from an underlying health condition that is influencing your mental health?
Change your perspective about your work and your career. Any work involves things that will leave you vulnerable. Ask yourself what you actually want: is it you or the work that is holding you back? If a changed perspective cannot change your work life, ask yourself if you aren’t in the wrong career and if so, take steps to get out of it.
A wrong career choice or workplace can affect your state of mind. You may feel you are wasting your life, uncertainty regarding the permanence of your work can make you anxious, being underpaid can make you feel unvalued, a bully culture and favouritism towards others can make you feel unworthy, toxic colleagues with a negative attitude towards their work and pursuing their own goals can lead to arguments and make the entire workplace toxic for you. Ask yourself if the values of the company for which you work correspond to your own.
How can you protect yourself? Seek help, whether in the medical field or from a family member; depression is just as valid a reality as a fractured leg. Remember that your work is just a segment of your being and by periodically reassessing your relationship with your work you can find a solution for the mental illness you are suffering from more easily. Set clear boundaries and limitations for yourself. Separate your own values as a human being from your work function and productivity and how you should be evaluated by others. Don’t lose sight of your unique talents.
Get support. It can be a friend, a mentor or a therapist, but is should be a place where you will have no fear of negative consequences and where you will be empowered. Make use of the support programme for employees, should your company provide such a facility.
If possible, request an interview with your company’s human resources department and discuss your circumstances with them and propose a solution. What do you need: sick leave, a short holiday, flexi working hours or working from home? Also determine if your needs will influence the rest of the team and how the team would benefit from your proposal. If you see your future with this company, you can share your ailment such as depression or burnout with them and request sick leave or suggest that your role in the company be changed and be more aligned to where you want to be. To be overworked or in a wrong role are two of the most important causes of poor mental health.
What kind of protection can you lay claim to in the workplace? The Labour Relations Act protects the employee against unfair dismissal if he or she is ill or disabled. If a medical practitioner books off an employee, the employee qualifies for sick leave, provided the employee has enough leave at his or her disposal. The medical practitioner also is under no obligation to mention pertinently what the illness is; “medical condition” will suffice. If an employee cannot obtain professional help, it would be advisable to conduct an honest conversation with his or her employer and negotiate sick leave or flexi-time, or a lighter work load.
Protection by the Act is also limited because not all mental illnesses can be classified as a disability. The employer can still retain the right to decide what is a disability or not and therefore flexi-time, a quiet workplace, a decreased work load and sick leave will also be based on the employer’s interpretation of “reasonable”. The Act cannot prescribe to the employer what is reasonable; the employer could for example say that the company does not allow flexi-time. The employer can therefore decide how serious a condition is to justify any form of accommodation, but the Act expects the employer to do everything within the company’s framework to accommodate the employee.
Be aware of which careers or workplaces require high stress resilience and whether you possess the necessary staying power for the work before making a career change. Medical and teaching professions with low remuneration, long hours and few benefits are high-stress careers. Depression and excessive stress manifest especially in emergency services, along with public transport drivers, social workers and legal professionals.
When Your Job Harms Your Mental Health
Caron, Christina. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/06/02/well/mind/job-work-mental-health.html?
What to Do When Your Job Is Hurting Your Mental Health
Robin Hoon April 08, 2021 https://www.vault.com/blogs/workplace-issues/what-to-do-if-your-job-is-hurting-your-mental-health
Mental health in the workplace
How does work affect your mental health?
Oct 15th, 2018 RiseConsulting https://www.riseconsulting.com.au/consulting-blog/how-does-work-affect-your-mental-health
Mental Health leave from Work: What the law says. Law For All
Feeling depressed at work? This is what the law in South Africa says
News24Wire9 October 2017