In 2017, 9% of lump-sum disability and 13% of income protection claims admitted by Sanlam were for mental health illnesses. In South Africa, 30.3% of adults experience a mental disorder in their lifetimes – that’s close to one-in-three people. But while so many are affected by it, mental illness remains stigmatized, and many are uncomfortable to talk about it. Though we’re finally starting to – last year’s global education drives helped to start conversations around psychiatric disorders - more needs to be done to encourage openness, says Dr Louis Boshoff, Medical Adviser at Sanlam.
Dr Boshoff explains that the often-ignored mental illnesses such as anxiety and clinical depression are on the rise. In a country like South Africa where the population battles with unhealthy eating habits, sedentary lifestyle and risky behaviours (such as high alcohol intake and cigarette smoking), mental and mood disorders tend to spike given the symbiotic relationship that exists between lifestyle diseases, like cardiovascular illnesses, and mood disorders.
“Research suggests that one-in-four working South Africans are diagnosed with depression. When people take time off work to deal with these, employee productivity as a whole will be affected. The issue of mental illness is therefore a bigger issue for businesses too and it is encouraging to see these conversations starting to happen in the workplace and employers allowing individuals to take time off and move out of a work environment with potential stressors.”
However, while taking much-needed time off is imperative, it can cause anxiety if an individual starts worrying about his or her salary and job security. This is where knowing your rights and proper financial planning can help to provide peace of mind.
South African employees with mental health conditions are constitutionally protected according to the Code of Good Practice on Key Aspects of Disability in the Workplace. This stipulates that employers are expected to reasonably accommodate the needs of people with disabilities. But what happens when a mental illness completely deteriorates a person’s ability to perform their job?
Dr Boshoff says that the insurance industry treats psychiatric disorders in the same manner as any other chronic condition, and people with mental disorders are able to claim for a range of benefits.
Understanding insurance and mental illness
If mental illness develops into a full-blown disability, then a person may not be able to perform his or her occupation. This is when cover becomes critical. Insurers provide:
Sickness benefits which provides cover when one is booked off sick by a doctor whether because of mental illness or any other illnesses and injuries.
A disability benefit provides cover in the event of total, permanent or continuous disability to fulfil occupational demands. This is particularly important in the case of severe mental illnesses as suffers are usually not be able to perform any other job, whether similar to their current role or not.
Income protection provides certainty of income in the event you cannot work due to serious illness or injury, either permanently or temporarily.
Applying for cover
Insurers work closely with the South African Society of Psychiatrists to ensure absolute fairness during the underwriting stage and most importantly, the claim stage. To start the process, all of the individual’s symptoms would need to be diagnosed by his or her doctor or specialist.
Insurance underwriters then use this information to determine the person’s risk. Cover may be granted with or without limitations, depending on the person’s overall risk profile.
The person only needs to be underwritten once-off. Think of diabetes as an example: the illness can change and a person could develop an eye complication, for example, but his or her cover will stay the same. The same approach is applied to mental disorders, as long as there was full disclosure upfront.
Dr Boshoff concludes, “To help recovery, we need to remove as many stressors as possible – including fears about income and job security. Insurance assists with this. Work stressors – often masked as ‘burn out’ – are another big factor to address. Employers can introduce mental health days at the workplace to give employees a break from these work stressors. It’s also a good idea to align these with therapy sessions, treatment and cognitive or behavioural therapy.”
For any insurance queries visit Sanlam.co.za.
To investigate your employee rights visit Labour.gov.za.
For more information on mental illness or assistance, visit Sadag.org or Safmh.org.za.