Mental health in the workplace is a critical issue that affects employees. Poor work performance is often linked to mental health issues, which may render an employee incapable of doing their job effectively by failing to meet the performance standards expected from them by the employer.

The World Health Organisation describes Mental health as “… a state of mental well-being that enables people to cope with the stresses of life, realise their abilities, learn well and work well, and contribute to their community”. 

Employees’ emotional skills, substance use, and genetics can make them more vulnerable to mental health problems. 

Factors that could potentially contribute to mental health are social, economic, geopolitical, and environmental circumstances – including poverty, violence, inequality, and environmental deprivation.

The Impact of Poor Mental Health on Work Performance

Poor work performance is often a direct consequence of unaddressed mental health concerns. Common manifestations of mental health problems include increased absenteeism, decreased productivity, and reduced job satisfaction. Employees may struggle with interpersonal relationships, leading to a less cohesive and productive team.

Addressing Mental Health in the Workplace

It is highly recommended to follow a softer and more empathetic approach in the form of employee counselling when dealing with an employee experiencing declining mental health that affects their work performance and prevents them from meeting reasonable performance standards.

The employer should always establish whether they are dealing with mental health or a diagnosed mental disorder (a mental disorder is characterised by a clinically significant disturbance in an individual’s cognition, emotional regulation, or behaviour). 

When dealing with undiagnosed mental health issues, the employee must be allowed to address their mental health challenges and meet the required performance standards. The employer is responsible for reasonably accommodating the employee in his/her efforts to manage his/her mental health issues.

Legal Framework

Section 9 of Schedule 8 (Code of Good Practice: Dismissal) of the Labour Relations Act deals with the guidelines in cases of dismissal for poor work performance and clearly outlines the following: 

Any person determining whether a dismissal for poor work performance is unfair should consider— 

(a) whether or not the employee failed to meet a performance standard and 

(b) if the employee did not meet a required performance standard, whether or not— 

  1. the employee was aware, or could reasonably be expected to have been aware, of the required performance standard; 
  2. the employee was given a fair opportunity to meet the necessary performance standards; and 
  3. dismissal was an appropriate sanction for not meeting the required performance standard.

Section 10 – Incapacity:  Ill health or injury outlines the following:

Incapacity for ill health or injury may be temporary or permanent.  If an employee is temporarily unable to work in these circumstances, the employer should investigate the extent of the incapacity or the injury. If the employee is likely to be absent for an unreasonably long time, the employer should explore all possible alternatives short of dismissal. 

 When alternatives are considered, relevant factors include the nature of the job, the period of absence, the seriousness of the illness or injury and the possibility of securing a temporary replacement for the ill or injured employee.  In cases of permanent incapacity, the employer should ascertain the possibility of securing alternative employment or adapting the duties or work circumstances of the employee to accommodate the employee’s disability.

Section 11 of Schedule 8 provided the following guidelines for a person determining whether a dismissal arising from ill health or injury is unfair:- 

  1. whether or not the employee is capable of performing the work and 
  2. if the employee is not capable- 
  1. the extent to which the employee can perform the work; 
  2. the extent to which the employee’s work circumstances might be adapted to accommodate disability, or, where this is not possible, the extent to which the employee’s duties might be adjusted; and 
  3. the availability of any suitable alternative work.

The above procedure/s (sections 10 & 11) should be used if the employee submits evidence of a diagnosed mental health disorder and/or any other ill health or injury supported by a doctor/specialist’s recommendation.

Case law

In Marsland v New Way Motor & Diesel Engineering (J4175/02) [2008] ZALC 157; (2009) 30 ILJ 169 (LC);[2008] 11 BLLR 1078 (LC) (28 June 2008), the applicant alleged that the respondent discriminated against him on an arbitrary ground, this ground being his mental illness, and later because he exercised his rights under the Act to pursue remedies against the respondent for unprocedural conduct and issuing him with a final written warning according to a disciplinary inquiry. The applicant later resigned and alleged the reason being constructive dismissal by the respondent. The commissioner declared that the applicant’s dismissal was automatically unfair in section 187 (1) (f) of the Labour Relations Act to 66 of 1995. The judgement was awarded in the applicant’s favour.

In summary, taking a softer, more compassionate approach to understanding and supporting an employee’s mental health challenges not only demonstrates empathy and builds trust but also promotes better outcomes for both the employee and the employer by addressing the root causes and providing tailored assistance and accommodations to the employee. By creating a supportive, inclusive, and proactive environment, employers can help their workforce thrive mentally and professionally, ultimately contributing to a healthier and more productive workforce.

If you would like to find out more about addressing mental health challenges among employees, then please do not hesitate to contact us at 0861 737 263