The 30th of March is World Bipolar Awareness Day. As with any commemorative occasion, it represents the opportunity to reflect on the past, to examine the status quo and also to make a determination as to what needs to be done in the future. People with Bipolar Disorder- as with all mental illnesses and psychosocial disabilities- have found themselves chronically discriminated against with tarnished perceptions imposing limitations on all facets of life. Indeed, prevailing social stigma remains rife among the public at large, which significantly diminishes the chance of a person so-situated from living as a productive member of society.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), Bipolar Disorder is a prevalent condition, with figures indicating it affects between 40 and 60 million people worldwide. Much research has been done surrounding the disorder and the combination of medication and therapy has shown good outcomes for affected persons. Notwithstanding this, Bipolar Disorder can become severe- even disabling- and there are many challenges individuals so-situated face- with the resultant unjustifiable limitation of their right to employment.
South Africa has ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The right to work is espoused in this treaty. Importantly, this instrument details that this right extends to everyone, meaning that people with illnesses and disabilities are included in this catchment. In the event that an individual’s Bipolar Disorder constitutes a disability, the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities also becomes relevant. This treaty has also been ratified by South Africa and highlights the need to mainstream people with disabilities into all spheres of society. The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa provides for the rights to dignity and equality- all of which are required for the realisation of the right to employment.
The mere fact that a person suffers from an illness or disability, therefore, does not mean that they ought to by necessary implication be unemployed or considered unemployable. That this is the case in the Republic is contained in the Basic Conditions of Employment Act which makes provision for what is known as reasonable accommodation. This concept denotes making justifiable allowances for an employee with an illness or a disability who can still fulfil the inherent requirements of their job provided certain adjustments are made. This excludes instances where the accommodation would lead to unjustifiable hardship or restrictions upon the employer. Under these conditions, it is wholly possible that an individual- such as one with Bipolar Disorder- can flourish in a work environment. Stigma attaches the intrinsic notion that these individuals are guaranteed to be unstable and unable to successfully fulfil the tasks attached to their job description without the requisite evidence to substantiate this. Challenges need not be barriers if only there is empathy.
Reasonable accommodation can take many forms and its requirements differ from person to person. These may include incremental increases in workload when a person returns from sick leave; flexible working hours; the breaking up of tasks; ensuring a working environment is quiet; reassignment to an alternative position; changes to supervisory methods; time off for medical treatment and collection of medication and many others. These are not intended for the employee to end up with a diminished output, but simply to create a conducive environment for the employee to fulfil his or her obligations to the organisation.
The South African Federation for Mental Health (SAFMH) is a non-governmental organisation seeking to advocate for and uphold the rights of people with psychosocial disabilities and people with intellectual disabilities. This year, the organisation will be raising awareness about the right of such individuals to employment. On this World Bipolar Awareness Day, SAFMH calls upon employers, prospective employers and other stakeholders to ensure that the right of people with Bipolar Disorder to work is upheld and that proactive steps are taken to facilitate the realisation of this right. Government departments and other stakeholders are encouraged to educate both employers as well as current and future employees with Bipolar Disorder on the right to work and to reasonable accommodation in the workplace.
Bipolar Disorder is a diagnosis, but it need not be a sentence. There is no reason why capable members of society should be precluded from entering and remaining in the labour market. Should employers be willing to take the necessary steps where required, employees with this disorder can add immense value to an organisation. Let the awareness raised by this day be carried over to every day of the year and let people with this condition be empowered and capable of transcending stigma and negative perceptions. #takeyourplace
For Inquiries Contact:
Project Leader: Information and Awareness
Tel: 011 781 1852