Mental Health and Burnout

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Mental health has been an issue garnering attention on a global level, however, since the start of the COVID 19 pandemic, there has been increased attention and focus on mental health. Mental health is a complex concept that refers to the various factors that affect a person’s well-being including an individual’s emotional, psychological, and social well-being as well as the ability to cope with stress.

The early warning signs include but are not limited to:

  • Eating or sleeping too much or too little and having reduced energy.

  • Withdrawing from people.

  • Experiencing unexplained aches and pains.

  • Feelings of helplessness, confusion or suffering with extreme mood swings.

  • Consuming alcohol or participating in the use of narcotics.

  • Considering self-harm or harming others.

  • Inability to perform daily tasks.

A strong mental health helps individuals reach their full potential and make a positive contribution to their communities whilst managing the stresses of life.

Employees suffering from mental health impact the workplace by creating low morale and affecting efficiency. Burn-out is a condition resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been effectively managed. It is a serious stress condition that leads to severe physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion. Burnout can also lead to psychological disorders such as depression and heart disease. It can also cause physical illnesses such as diabetes and high blood pressure if left untreated. An individual who is habitually exposed to high levels of stress can experience burnout which is categorised by feelings of fatigue, increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativity with regards to one’s job and diminished professional efficiency.

The stigma attached to mental health can prevent people suffering from this illness from accessing the support they need. This is why it is so important that employees and employers are trained to create a safe and inclusive workplace. It is vital that employers consider the needs of their employees when it comes to mental health and wellbeing whilst balancing the interests of the business.

In Independent Municipal and Allied Trade Union obo Strydom v Witzenburg Municipality and Others [2012] 7 BLLR 660 (LAC) the court found that the employer had not conducted a thorough investigation to determine that it was not possible to adapt the employee’s working conditions in order to accommodate the employee’s incapacity, being mental illness. The employer further failed to offer the employee a suitable alternative position, therefore the dismissal of the employee was deemed unfair. In addition, it was established that the employer did not consider or implement measures to eliminate the factors or stressors contributing to the employee’s mental illness.

In Marsland v New Way Motor and Diesel Engineering [2008] 11 BLLR 1078 (LC) it was highlighted that discrimination based on mental illness can impair the fundamental dignity of a person as a human being or affect them in a comparably serious manner.

In Jansen v Legal Aid South Africa [2019] JOL 42192 (LC) it was found that the employer had knowledge of the employee’s disability, being a mental illness, therefore the employer had a duty to reasonably accommodate the employee, however, the employer failed to do so.

Employers are required to provide employees suffering from mental health issues with as much support as possible and practicable, which can include instituting an investigation to determine the possibility of adapting an employee’s working environment, and ways and means of assisting the employee concerned. The employer should also attempt to establish the nature of the illness, whether it is of a temporary or permanent nature, as well as the options that can be considered in order to avoid dismissal. During these proceedings, the employee must be afforded the opportunity to state their case and elaborate on their condition. Once the alternative measures have been exhausted, should there be no viable options to accommodate the employee, the employee can be dismissed based on incapacity. In this case, the onus will rest with the employer to prove that all viable alternatives were considered.

It is apparent that the courts do not tolerate carelessness by an employer in understanding, accommodating, and investigating the mental health of an employee. An employer will therefore be required to make reasonable efforts, which cannot be dictated to an Employer as each case should be weighed on its own merits and in consideration of the employer’s requirements.

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