One of the (many) events that caused me to be admitted to a psych hospital was getting fired from a toxic job after series of events following my disclosure of my mental health status. It wasn’t until a group led by Mariaan Jacklin at Akeso that I found out that I, in fact, had been wrongfully dismissed. She taught us about rights that we, as people with mental health diagnoses, have in a work environment and my mind was thoroughly blown. Luckily Mariaan has been gracious enough to let me interview her for this post so you can learn what your rights are and how to make sure you’re treated fairly. But first a little background:
Mariaan graduated from the University of Pretoria in 2012, and completed a post graduate diploma in Vocational Rehabilitation in 2014. She has worked in a variety of settings including forensic mental health, injury on duty, return to work intervention, substance abuse rehabilitation and private psychiatric clinics.
She uses compassion-based, goal-directed behavioural approaches in individual therapy; facilitates group therapy using the dialectical behavior therapy approach; and conducts functional and work capacity assessments for individual and insurance purposes. She is passionate about health, and supporting individuals in creating lives that are personally fulfilling and meaningful.
1. Do I have to disclose my mental health to my employer?
There is no legal obligation to disclose any information to your employer. Some disabilities are automatically disclosed, such as being wheelchair bound, but with mental health you are not obligated to disclose a diagnosis, provided that it is well managed and not affecting your ability to perform your work duties. Should you be temporarily or permanently unable to perform your work duties, it may be in your best interest to disclose to your employer, as there is no responsibility on your employer’s side to accommodate you should you choose not to disclose your illness.
2. Do mental health days count as sick days?
Absolutely! Mental health is an illness just like any physical illness and should be treated the same. You won’t go to work when you are physically unwell, so therefore you should treat yourself with the same care and compassion when you are mentally unwell. Mental health days should be encouraged and supported by employers, as this creates a culture of sensitivity and compassion at work, which may aid employees in preventing burnout.
3. What are the responsibilities of your employer if you choose to disclose your mental health?
According to the Employment Equity Act, an employer should accommodate a disclosed illness or disability, provided that this accommodation is reasonable and does not place unjustifiable hardship on the company. This accommodation may be temporary or permanent, and can take on many shapes and forms such as adjusting your duties, your work environment, your hours, or relieving you from certain responsibilities.
4. Can I be fired for my mental health condition?
The Labour Relations Act clearly states the process to follow before someone can be dismissed for being incapable of doing their jobs. This includes; ensuring that the employee has access to the necessary health care professionals, giving the employee sufficient time to recover, adjusting the work duties of the employee, and accommodating the employee in an alternative role in the company. The employer is encouraged to involve expert health professionals, such as occupational therapists, in this process so that the accommodations are appropriate to the impairment. Should the employer be able to prove that they have followed due diligence with regards to all of the above measures, they may be able to fairly dismiss an employee for incapacity. However, it should be noted that mental health recovery is not a linear process, and employer’s are encouraged to explore any alternatives prior to settling on dismissal.
5. What’s the most important thing someone suffering with mental health problems at work should know?
The most important thing to know is that South African Labour Law protects people that suffer from illnesses or injuries, and that there is nothing to be ashamed about. Unfortunately, stigma in the workplace has created a culture of secrecy and shame when it comes to mental health, and although we are slowly making progress, there is still a lot of work to be done around mental health awareness in the workplace. If you are suffering from a mental illness, it is important that you protect your boundaries in the workplace; that you don’t get bullied into working longer, harder and faster, which can adversely affect your mental health. You have the right to express when you are not coping, and the right to expect support and understanding from your employer.
6. What do I do if i feel like I’m being discriminated against at work?
When someone feels discriminated against at work it is usually due to a lack of insight and understanding on the employer’s or HR representative’s side. There is still significant stigma around mental health in the workplace, and discrimination usually occurs when employers are not sure how to go about handling issues of mental health with sensitivity and confidentiality. If you feel discriminated against, it would be advisable to chat to HR and your Employee Wellness Department (if you have access to one) about your concerns. Your employer is legally required to protect your confidentiality, and a breach of confidentiality may constitute unfair discrimination. It may be valuable for your employer to implement mental health awareness campaigns in the workplace to open the discussion around mental health. One in three South Africans suffers from a mental health related illness, and initiatives like this may help employees to be more open and supportive of each others’ mental health. With regards to rumours from coworkers, the most effective way to deal with this is to be open and honest and to approach the issue directly and without shame. Once an issue has been discussed openly and honestly, your coworkers will no longer get a kick from discussing it behind your back. In addition, not only would you have stood up for yourself by discussing it openly, you would also be giving others who might also be struggling with their own mental health permission to do the same, and not be ashamed.