Physical and mental illness hampers SA's productivity

Business people from Shutterstock
Business people from Shutterstock

Physical and mental illness is having a significant impact on productivity in South Africa, and companies of all sizes need to focus on employee wellness as an essential component of their business strategy. This is according to Lesego Mashishi of Limitless Occupational Therapy, which provides a full range of OT services for corporations, SMEs and individuals.

Impact on productivity

"According to a paper published in August , physical and mental illness frequently results in what researchers refer to as ‘days out of role’," says Mashishi. "This naturally impacts on productivity, and some researchers estimate that South African businesses are losing as much as 17% of their payroll every year due to absenteeism. Not only is this compromising individual businesses, it is also affecting national competitiveness."

In light of the fact that the World Economic Forum recently ranked South Africa 56th out of 144 countries when it comes to competitiveness , the issue of work days lost due to both illness and injury comes into sharp focus.

Read: Save with corporate wellness

"What is significant about illness in the workplace is that 12.4% of respondents in the South African Stress and Health Study (2009) reported having days out of role due to a mental or physical disorder," says Mashishi. "Unfortunately, disorders like depression, anxiety, arthritis and diabetes seldom receive the same preventative attention that industrial injuries do, and the resulting impact on productivity can be substantial."

Perhaps surprising is the fact that mental disorders are associated with a higher number of days out of role per annum (23.6) than physical disorders (15.5). Mashishi says this is a compelling reason for businesses of all sizes to have a formal approach to managing employee wellness.

"Employee wellness programmes provide a framework within which employers can identify and address the root causes of absenteeism," she says, "and this enables them to manage the resulting loss of productivity more effectively."

Residual work capacity

Limitless Occupational Therapy, which has offices in both Pretoria and Witbank, works closely with a number of companies to manage employee wellness and carry out Functional Capacity evaluations in order to establish an individual’s residual work capacity following illness or injury. In the case of mental disorders, this involves an initial consultation with the employee, who may then be referred to a psychiatrist for diagnosis and treatment. The company also works closely with clinical psychologists, who provide counselling support for affected individuals.

Once these evaluation/assessment procedures and treatment or support protocols are in place, Limitless OT provides activity-based occupational therapy and vocational rehabilitation to help employees deal with their illnesses and integrate them back into the workplace, if and when necessary. This full-service process not only helps to reduce the distress of the disorder for the employee, but also to limit the possibility of the individual having to be declared medically unfit to continue working in their current position.

Read: Loud noise may increase risk for workplace injuries

Should this occur, either due to a disorder or an injury, Limitless OT assists the employer in assessing the employee’s level of disability and in suggesting possible alternative roles within the organisation. This means that the employee’s expertise is not lost to the company entirely, but can be re-focused in other ways therefore reducing costs and time required for training and induction of new staff members for the company. Adequate match/fit between an individual’s mental and physical capacity to their own occupation, yields work task mastery, which results in job satisfaction.

"The important thing to consider is that effective, integrated treatment significantly reduces the number of days out of role resulting from long-term disorders and injuries, and this has a positive impact on productivity," says Mashishi. "With this in mind, formal employee wellness programmes are essential, not only as a means to reduce distress for employees but also to secure business sustainability."


(1.) Mall, S; Lund, C; Vilagut, G; Alonso, J; Williams, DR; Stein, DJ. Days out of role due to mental and physical illness in the South African stress and health study. US National Institutes of Health, August 2014: (accessed 19 September 2014).

(2) The Global Competitiveness Report 2014 - 2015. World Economic Forum: (accessed 19 September 2014).

(3) Herman, AA; Stein DJ; Seedat, S; Heeringa, S, Moomal, H; Williams, DR. The South African Stress and Health (SASH) Study. South African Medical Journal, Vol. 99, No.5, May 2009: (accessed 19 September 2014).

Read more:

Mental illness: the cost to countries
Flu biggest cause of absenteeism
More SA workers sick with stress

Image: Office workers from Shutterstock

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