Mental health in the workplace – what you can do to help

Do you know how to handle mental health in the workplace?
Do you know how to handle mental health in the workplace?

One in four South African workers suffers from depression. Chances are high you could have a colleague who suffers from a mental illness. Maligay Govender, mental health life coach and neuro-linguistic programming practitioner, offers helpful advice on how to deal with mental health in the workplace.

“It’s not difficult; just treat them like they are human,” says Govender. “Educate yourself and show you understand. They do not need pity or deserve harsh judgement. Having a mental disorder doesn’t mean the person is unable to do their job or their IQ is low.”

She says it’s important to be sensitive when they are unwell. “You must understand that if a person relapses they cannot just snap out of it or take two days’ sick leave from the GP to recover like it is a common cold. Some relapses require hospitalisation and the person may take a month or more to stabilise.”

Be kind

Early intervention is important for this reason. “Understand that the person is not intentionally acting out of character, neglecting their work or delivering low levels of performance. Approach them and ask them a simple question: “Are you okay?”

Clients often ask Govender if they should disclose their diagnosis to their boss. “They are afraid of being stigmatised or that they won’t be hired because they are seen as a risk and their capabilities are overlooked,” she says. “As an employer or manager, be approachable, understanding and foster an environment where your employees can come to work and feel like the company and management care about them as people, not just a number.”

She also emphasises the importance of employers working on reasonable accommodations with their staff who have a mental disorder. “Don’t have them sit in a very noisy area in the office as this can be startling and distracting if they are prone to auditory hallucinations; don’t let them work late shifts as they might need to take medication and have a solid night’s sleep so they don’t wake up feeling sedated; make sure they have sufficient breaks; and allocate tasks for them to manage one at a time, rather than inundating them with work and making them feel overwhelmed.”

You can also provide staff with emotional support through employee assistance programmes. “With one in four South Africans affected by mental health issues in their lives, it’s more common than we care to admit.”

First aid for mental health

Govender says everyone should know mental health first aid to be able to assist a person experiencing a psychiatric crisis. All you need to remember is ALGEE:

  • Approach, assess and assist with any crisis
  • Listen non-judgementally
  • Give support and information
  • Encourage appropriate professional help
  • Encourage other supports

Dos and don’ts

Govender talks through the dos and don’ts for handling mental health in the workplace (or in any environment):


  • Remember that a person with a mental disorder has the same right to fair treatment and legal protection as anyone else.
  • Maintain adequate space between you and the person.
  • Be calm and non-threatening.
  • Be helpful. In most cases people with a mental disorder will respond to questions concerning their basic needs. Ask questions like, “What would make you feel safer/calmer?” Give firm, clear directions. The person may already be confused and may have trouble making the simplest decision. Only one person should talk to him/her.
  • Respond to delusions and hallucinations by talking about the person’s apparent feelings, not what he or she is saying (content). For example, say, “That sounds frightening” or “I can see why you are angry.”


  • Use inappropriate language, such as “crazy”, “psycho”, or “nuts”.
  • Join into behaviour related to the person’s disorder (for example, agreeing/disagreeing with delusions/hallucinations).
  • Stare at or touch the person. They may interpret this as a threat.
  • Whisper, joke or laugh. This increases the person’s paranoia and the potential for violence as they may feel they need to defend themselves against you.
  • Deceive the person. This increases fear and suspicion; the person will likely discover the dishonesty and remember it.

Maligay Govender will be speaking at the 2018 Festival of Learning hosted by the South African College of Applied Psychology. 

Image credit: iStock

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