13 October 2011

Depressed at your desk

Many people in the workplace are affected by depression and other mental problems. Companies and medical schemes can benefit by giving their support to these employees.


Between 15% and 30% of South Africa's workforce will experience mental health problems at some point in their careers.  If you are lucky enough not to be affected yourself, chances are that you might still have to deal with a colleague who suffers from mental illness at some point.

Depression is one of the most common mental health problems afflicting between 10% and 15% of the population, according to Dr Volker Hitzeroth, a Cape Town psychiatrist. Hitzeroth gave a presentation at a recent mental health workshop hosted by Occupational Care South Africa (OCSA).

Although most people experience bad or low moods from time to time, a diagnosis of depression is only made when a person's depressive mood lasts for a certain period, and affects his/her functioning.

And unlike people experiencing a bad mood, "people with depression can't just pull themselves together," said Hitzeroth. It is a neurological problem that causes structural changes in the brain and involves both the mind and the body. It is optimally treated with a combination of anti-depressant medication and psychotherapy.

The effects of depression run much deeper than the heavy emotional burden on the patient. The physical and emotional lethargy brought on by the condition often have a negative on the person's personal relationships, and can lead to a lower level of productivity that may have financial implications for the person.

Cost of psychiatric conditions

Unhappy and unproductive employees can also place a strain on companies, which is why organisations could benefit in the long run from supporting employees who have mental health problems, argued Dr Belinda Richards from Discovery, who also presented at the OCSA workshop.

"We see a lot of neglect of psychiatric conditions," said Richards. "And this neglect has far-reaching implications." In as many as 40% to 50% of cases, people who have been admitted to hospital for a psychiatric condition, have to be readmitted at a later stage.

She commented that companies as well as medical schemes would benefit from offering support to these employees. By encouraging adherence to treatment for psychiatric conditions, companies  could help prevent admission to hospital, therefore reducing costs to medical schemes and absenteeism, and ensuring healthier and more productive workers.- (Health24, October 2011)

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Michael Simpson has been a senior psychiatric academic, researcher, and Professor in several countries, having worked at London University in the UK; McMaster University in Canada; Temple University in Philadelphia, USA.; and the University of Natal in South Africa.

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