Mitigating suicide and promoting mental health in the workplace

By Dr Spo Kgalamono, Acting Executive Director of the National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOH)

Dr Spo Kgalamono, Acting Executive Director of the National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOH).

Mental health should be a priority to everyone, yet in 2019 South Africa still struggles to manage it. The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) reports that 10% of all unnatural deaths in adults and 9.5% in youth are due to suicide. There are about 23 suicides a day, virtually one every hour. Yet, there are only 284 psychiatrists (160 of them in the private sector) to care for South Africa’s growing population. In Limpopo and Mpumalanga, there is no government psychiatrist while in the North West, there is only one government psychiatrist servicing nearly 4 million people.

As we observe World Mental Health month in October, we take a deeper look at mental health and suggest some steps that employers can take to support mental health in the workplace.

Globally, an estimated 264 million people suffer from depression with many of them also displaying symptoms of anxiety. Unemployment is a well-recognized risk factor for mental health problems, while returning to, or being employed is protective. Work is good for mental health but a negative working environment can lead to physical and mental health problems.

Mental disorders often affect, and are affected by, other diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease and HIV infection/AIDS, and require common services and resource mobilisation efforts. Harassment and bullying at work are commonly reported problems, and can have a substantial adverse impact on mental health. There are many effective actions that organizations can take to promote mental health in the workplace and such actions may also boost productivity.

What employers can do to help

Employers should take extra care when dealing with individuals, especially when you do not know their mental health status. In order to help those suffering with mental illness, safe work spaces need to be created and prioritised. Facilities that support and promote mental health will reduce absenteeism and increase productivity.

Interventions should take a 3-pronged approach: Protect mental health by reducing work–related risk factors; Promote mental health by developing positive aspects of work and strengths of employees; and Address mental health problems regardless of cause.Some of the factors that commonly cause work-related stress include; long working hours without proper rest, heavy workloads, rapid changes in the organisation, tight deadlines, job insecurity, harassment and discrimination, crisis incidents, poor relationships with bosses, and insufficient skills for the job. These psychosocial hazards are not typically identified when a risk assessment is done however a targeted psychosocial risk assessment could be carried out through surveys or interviews. These will help identify risk factors in the workplace organisational culture and management style, amongst others.

Employers could help by reallocating work to reduce workloads, enforce a zero-tolerance approach to workplace harassment and discrimination, allow flexibility to deal with work-life conflict, provide supervisory and co-worker support, and protect workers by raising awareness.

A big win could be establishing programs for career development of employees and rewarding the contribution by employees. Another way of supporting mental health is by involving employees in decision-making, and by informing staff that support is available without victimisation and stigma.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that for every USD $1 invested in mental health treatment, there will be a USD $4 return in work productivity.

As the NIOH, we promote mental health and safety in the workplace across the formal and informal economy. We believe that good mental health boosts productivity and we support a healthy work-life balance.

If you know someone that requires support and help for mental illness; here are some organisations you can contact;

  • South African Depression and Anxiety Group – Tel: 011 234 4837
  • Lifeline – Tel: 011 728-1331 or Crisis Number: (011) 728-1347
  • Post Natal Depression and Anxiety Helpline: 083 309-3960 (Colleen); 082-882-0072 (Liz); 083-327-2382 (Gauteng) E- Mail:;
  • Compassionate Friends – (043) 721-0406
  • Ekuphaleni Mental Health Centre – (011) 909-2929/5011
  • Johannesburg Bipolar Association – (011) 485 2406 Linda Trump
  • Midrand Crisis Centre – (011) 805-3121
  • Pretoria Bipolar Association – (012) 348-6057
  • The Schizophrenia & Bipolar Alliance – (011) 463 9901
  • Cape Support for Mental Health – Heather McKenzie (021) 671-1573


For contact details of more support groups across the country, click here.