Mental illness: Would your HR manager understand?

If you had to develop a mental condition, could you tell the company you work for? Would they look after you and support you? A new study reveals that they might not.

Nearly a third of adults will experience a mental condition during their working lives so no one can say with confidence that this is something that only happens to other people.

How a company manages mental illness is largely determined by its human resources (HR) practitioners. Researchers Charmaine Hugo, Dr Henry Vos and Prof Dan Stein of the University of Stellenbosch administered questionnaires to 368 HR practitioners in South Africa. The questionnaires, which included case studies portraying mental disorders, measured knowledge about mental illness (so-called mental health literacy) and attitudes towards the mentally ill.

They found that HR practitioners had poor knowledge about mental illness. The majority could not recognise mental illness and also did not have correct information about the cause and treatment of mental conditions.

Subtle negative attitudes revealed
Although the practitioners generally held positive attitudes towards the mentally ill, many had subtle negative attitudes. For example, a quarter of the respondents expressed fear towards people with mental illness and many believed that the mentally ill are a burden to society.

“The challenge to the business world is to acknowledge that mental illness exists within the workplace and affects the company bottom line,” say the researchers.

Mental illness affects many aspects of work performance and can therefore be costly. Direct costs to the business world include those of treatment and rehabilitation as covered by medical aid and other managed health care schemes. But there are also indirect costs such as loss in productivity, decreased motivation, increased absenteeism and staff turnover, early retirement, safety risks, interpersonal conflict, suicide and the cost of inadequate or inappropriate treatment.

“As the ‘people specialists’ within business, HR practitioners should be enabled to manage mental illness effectively in the workplace, just as they are required to be knowledgeable about other employee health matters that affect individual and company performance,” the researchers say.

They recommend that HR practitioners should be adequately trained in mental illness matters, and that they should be made aware of their personal attitudes and how these impact on managing mental illness in the workplace.

Due to developments in the field of psychiatry, effective treatment is available. If managed correctly, many people with mental illness can lead fulfilling lives and make meaningful contributions to the workplace and society. - (Ilse Pauw, Health24)

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