The stigma surrounding mental illness in South Africa is a significant concern, with sufferers fearing discrimination and even dismissal should they reveal their mental health conditions to their employers.

The Employment Equity Act (EEA), which stipulates that “No person may unfairly discriminate, directly, against an employee, in any employment policy or practise, on one or more grounds, including race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, family responsibility, ethnic or social origin, colour sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, HIV status, conscience, belief, political opinion, culture, language and birth or on any other arbitrary ground.”

With reference to a specific case, an employee suffered a mental breakdown while on holiday as a result of anxiety and depression following the collapse of his marriage. After his return to work, the employee detected a change in attitude towards him by senior management staff, who excluded him from activities in which he had previously taken part. The employee also suffered severe bullying, intimidation, violence, demotion and marginalisation in the workplace because of his mental health condition. He alleged that the employer had discriminated against him based on an arbitrary ground, namely his mental illness, and that this forced him to vacate his position.

The court held that the employee had returned to his employment position in a vulnerable state and had been subjected to a brutal regime of psychological assault and degrading treatment for a significant period of time. This conduct of the employer the court found to have clearly constituted an “egregious attack” on the employee’s fundamental human dignity and consequently amounted to unfair discrimination. The court can award up to 24 months’ remuneration in such a case.


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