When institutions fail; mental health in the workplace

Published by

Steven Nonde

Published on

8 August 2018

The death of renowned cardiologist and researcher Professor Bongani Mayosi sent shockwaves across the continent and the world over (1,2). An inspirational and revolutionary figure, Professor Mayosi passed away on the 27thof July, 2018 after a two year struggle with depression (1). His death was described by His Excellency Cyril Ramaphosa as “a loss not only to his family but to the country as a whole (2).” And indeed it is. Professor Bongani Mayosi was highly accomplished. His involvement in arguably the largest African-led clinical trial with minimal funding changed how Tuberculosis Pericarditis (a condition prevalent in HIV patients) is treated (3). However, his untimely death could lead to yet another change, how we manage mental health in the workplace.

Depression in the South African work place: What we know

A 2016 study published in the South African Journal of Psychiatry investigating the impact of depression on the work place, concluded that support and policies related to mental health (specifically depression) are grossly weak (4). It also found that at least one out of every four employees that took part in the study had previously been diagnosed with depression and that those most affected were between the ages of 25 to 44 years old (4). Other important findings spoke to stigma and its crippling effect on the workplace. For instance, non-disclosure of depression as the reason for sick leave was overwhelming due to fear of how the employee would be regarded by their employers and peers (4). Perhaps even more worrying, the study found that most managers [who are custodians of the workplace] do not feel well equipped to manage employees diagnosed with depression or let alone confront issues of mental health (4). “There appears to be a surprising lack of awareness of depression and its consequences in the workplace”, writes the investigators (4). We run the risk of losing productivity and in the most unfortunate cases, lives, when we poorly manage mental health in the workplace. These possible loses mean that this is not solely a health issue but a societal one, calling for everyone’s involvement (government, communities, employees and employers, the list is endless). With that in mind, did we fail Professor Mayosi?

UCT as Community Failed Mayosi

In an interview on Cape Talk radio, the University of Cape Town Vice Chancellor, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng coincided [quite frankly] that UCT could have done more for Professor Mayosi (5). Professor Phakeng lamented, “We failed him as management. We could have let him go at the time when he asked to be let go (5).” Following student protests and pressure within the faculty, Professor Mayosi asked to be relieved of his post as Dean of Health Sciences (5). His resignation was rejected as the university felt it would reflect poorly on the institution (5). “He wasn’t saying he wanted to leave UCT. He said I want to stop being dean. That is a simple request,” admitted Professor Phakeng (5). She continues, “For us to say that the institution wouldn’t look good when someone is under pressure and in pain, we as an institution must own up (5).” 

In a moving and thought provoking tribute, Dr. Lydia Cairncross, with whom professor Mayosi brushed shoulders at both Groote Schuur Hospital and UCT, reflects on the pressure that might have come with being a beacon of hope and a torch carrier for not only the black community in Mthatha, Eastern Cape but an entire continent (6). She also points to institutional arrangements, racism and overbearing expectations [among other things] that inherently accompany success at the highest level (6). ”We should consider, I think, the unique role of a brilliant black academic…… carrying on his shoulder the weight of the hope and of the unrealised potential of his people, country and continent,” she writes so passionately (6).

One candle can light a room

Reflecting on Professor Mayosi’s life reminds us of his remarkable contribution to science and medicine. His death on the other hand brings to light issues that are often swept under the carpet. More than that, it forces us to ask some really uncomfortable questions. How much do we know about the burden of depression in our respective work places? Are we aware of or at the very least sensitive to the mental health of our peers with whom we work so closely? How about the community at large? It is not so long ago that we witnessed the Life Esidimeni tragedy when 144 psychiatric patients died (7). It is unforgiveable, isn’t it? Why did our system fail them? What about the ones who continue to suffer in silence? This article is dedicated to Professor Bongani Mayosi, and anyone who has been affected by mental illness.



  1. News24 (2018). Family devastated by death of Prof Bongani Mayosi, says he struggled with depression. Available from: https://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/family-devastated-by-death-of-professor-mayosi-who-struggled-with-depression-20180728 [Accessed 31 July 2018].
  2. News24 (2018).Ramaphosa extends condolences following death of renowned cardiologist. Available from: https://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/ramaphosa-extends-condolences-following-death-of-renowned-cardiologist-20180728 [Accessed 31 July 2018].
  3. UCT (2018). Groundbreaking clinical trial settles question on treatment of TB pericarditis. Available from: http://www.news.uct.ac.za/article/-2014-09-08-groundbreaking-clinical-trial-settles-question-on-treatment-of-tb-pericarditis [Accessed 6 August 2018].
  4. Stander MP, Bergh M, Miller-Janson HE, Beer JCD, Korb FA (2016). Depression in the South African workplace. S Afr J Psychiat. 2016;22(1):a814. Available from: https://www.ajol.info/index.php/sajpsyc/article/view/143071 [Accessed 31 July 2018].
  5. 702 (2018). UCT as a community failed Dr Bongani Mayosi – UCT VC. Available from: http://www.702.co.za/articles/313564/uct-as-a-community-failed-dr-bongani-mayosi-uct-vc [Accessed 31 July 2018].
  6. Cairncross L (2018). Thoughts on the death of Professor Bongani Mayosi. Available from: https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2018-07-31-thoughts-on-the-death-of-professor-bongani-mayosi/ [Accessed 2 August 2018].
  7. News.24 (2018). Esidimeni tragedy was a failure of the duty of care. Available from: https://www.news24.com/Columnists/GuestColumn/esidimeni-tragedy-was-a-failure-of-the-duty-of-care-20180325-3 [Accessed 2 August 2018].
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