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The Latest from the Blog

Common Characteristics of Mental Illness in the Workplace

Harriet Stacey - Wednesday, July 27, 2016

We’re aware that for all business owners, the majority of days – and plenty of nights as well –  will be spent juggling multiple balls connected to customers, products, services, payroll, health and safety, suppliers, marketing… the list goes on! And even with the best systems in place, we have all experienced what can happen when one or more of those balls hits the shop floor.

Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of business is in fact the human element. In particular with employees coming in all shapes, sizes and personalities it is inevitable that moods and quirks such as annoyance, closing ranks, rumour-mongering, impatience, loud jokiness and virtual invisibility will be on display at various times amid your staff. But what if these ‘quirks’ represent symptoms of mental illness in particular staff, such as depression, anxiety or mood disorders? And further - how do we gauge if the presence of mental illness has any connection to a workplace bullying situation?

We provide some guidance below on how to sensitively identify some basic characteristics of mental illness in the workplace. Once you have some certainty around this development, you might also uncover meaningful connections between the illness suffered and pockets of workplace bullying.

Match Symptoms with Time

Most workplaces thrive on some version of cyclical ‘peaks and troughs’, with outputs tied to the passage of regular events. Take many retailers, conference venues, primary producers and accountancy firms as examples. For them Christmas, show-time, harvest and tax requirements can all mark moments when staff develop various excited, irritable, demanding and adrenalin-fuelled bursts of energy - plus the inevitable depressive lag in the aftermath! And in the majority of cases there is no cause for concern with the development of these very human characteristics at work.

But the time to be aware of something ‘more’ occurring for a staff member is when their mood or behaviour doesn’t match with any time-related situation that you are aware of. In a seeming lull for the business, mental illness in an employee might manifest in social withdrawal, absenteeism/ presenteeism, uncharacteristic productivity changes, personality shifts, crying or deep irritation with others. Most medical diagnoses require a period of some weeks with symptoms before a mental illness such as anxiety, depression or a mood disorder can be found. We all have bad days. But by matching time with symptom development over 1-3 weeks business owners can start to gauge if mental illness might be involved.

Monitor Sectional Changes

Another key way to detect characteristics of mental illness in the workplace is to regularly undertake a psychological ‘temperature’ test in all divisions in the company. By this we mean taking the time to gauge the general cooperation, enjoyment, productivity, communication and team cohesion that exists in each section and/or team. This crucial element of workplace health can be investigated by trained workplace professionals or – if you have the time and skills – by personally walking the floor on an ongoing basis. Keep in mind however that those experiencing or causing mental illness symptoms way be unlikely to share personal information with the boss!

Interestingly, this business-wide mental health monitoring can often reveal potential bullying cases. The cliché can exist of the depressed low-level worker crying because s/he is ‘depressed’ about work. But increasingly, unwell managers who are left unchecked and unassisted in their own mental distress can cause bullying-related damage to those around them – as well as complex injury claims. Manifestations of chronic anxiety as well as hyper/hypomania on the spectrum of bipolarity can include extraordinary energy, feelings of superiority, fast and confident speech, delusions of grandeur and savage irritability when annoyed, to name just some of the characteristics of these harsh and unforgiving mental conditions. The quietly weeping worker might indeed be suffering depression; yet so might the demanding, manic, laughing, busy, insufferable manager with the timid and miserable staff beneath her.

Making wellness your business

And we know that at the end of the day, injury caused in the work context isn’t a matter of blaming the worker who manifested mental illness. Bullying coming off the back of a mental illness that has gone unnoticed will still be a problem for business owners themselves to rectify. Whether via professional investigation or internal monitoring, take the time to carefully deduce if a worker is simply having an ‘off day’ – or if something more complex is involved. At Wise Workplace we can help you investigate possible workplace bullying, plus provide you with positive strategies for monitoring the overall mental health of your workplace.

3 Strategies For Handling Mental Illness in the Workplace

Harriet Stacey - Wednesday, July 20, 2016
3 Strategies For Handling Mental Illness in the Workplace

It is heartening to see that the stigma around mental illness is slowly reducing, both in workplaces and the broader community. Yet when it comes to identifying and monitoring mental illness at work, many employers are uncertain of the best mechanisms to use. 

We understand that employers want to do the right thing by their employees, yet they can sometimes mistakenly see mental illness as a non-work issue. And with community knowledge still rather generalised when it comes to mental health, it can be quite a challenge to know where to start when it comes to providing relevant workplace assistance.

The mounting evidence

We are often asked – is mental illness really a problem for employers? As the Australian Human Rights Commission notes – not only will 45% of Australians be impacted by mental illness in their life, but around half of all workers’ compensation claims will involve a psychological injury. And Australian business loses some $6.5 billion each year by failing to provide early mental wellness assistance to staff. So in short – yes. It pays to keep mental health a front-and-centre issue within every business! 

In fact, there is every chance that a proportion of workers in every workplace is currently dealing with a mental illness – regardless of appearances. Without proper strategies in place to handle current and future mental health issues in the workplace, it is sadly inevitable that some employers will face considerable business challenges related to operations, costs and staff attrition.

Strategies for managing mental health
1. Audit your mental health resources 

The importance of a thorough and practical audit of your current workplace mental health resources can’t be overstated. The existence of formal HR policies on staff health, email bulletins about bullying, and provision of external counselling services might seem like a reasonable mix of strategies. 

However, while such standard mechanisms are certainly essential, each particular business might also need additional resources and initiatives to meet employees’ mental health requirements. For example, both a hospital emergency department and a high school might present considerable workplace stressors for workers – yet they will inevitably have unique needs in terms of resources needed. It is important to seek the services of a workplace audit professional, with current-day knowledge of mental illness risk management in varying business environments. 

2. Train for mental health 

Staff development aimed at the management of workplace mental illness must be multi-pronged. Those in upper-management can access high-quality courses designed to assist with understanding and appropriately supporting workers who are suffering mental illness. 

These can range from first-aid type training – to enable a ‘triage’ type approach to symptom manifestation in the workplace – through to more general education around the interplay between the modern workplace and mental health conditions. Depending upon business size, general staff must also be provided with ongoing training and awareness resource on workplace mental health. This includes the correct (and incorrect!) ways to approach a workmate who might be suffering from a mental illness. 

3. Develop a ‘mental wellness’ culture 

Good workplace culture around mental health must start at the top. It is next-to useless to develop resources for general staff if upper management seems disinterested in tackling mental health issues at work – or even worse, if they make ‘jokey’ comments on the subject. The astounding rise of work-related mental illness and associated compensation claims is at least partly attributable to some rather out-dated and incorrect assumptions made regarding mental illness among workers. 
Getting The expert know-how
We understand that knowing where to start with a ‘tune-up’ of workplace culture is more easily said than done. But with a good mental health snap-shot taken via professional audit, plus some up-to-date training on best-practice, a ‘healthy’ approach to mental illness in the workplace is certainly achievable. Add to this a well-structured program aimed at growing a culture of inclusion for those staff currently dealing with mental illness, and organisations will certainly be on the road to a healthier, happier and more productive workforce.

Monty Pythonesque Defence of Case Costs $87,000

Harriet Stacey - Wednesday, July 13, 2016
Monty Python-esque Defence of Case Costs $87,000

An “absurd” defence of an unfair dismissal case, which a Fair Work Commissioner likened to a Monty Python sketch, has ended up being very costly for one employer, and provides an important lesson for any organisation involved in legal action. 

The recent decision on costs in Somasundaram v Department of Education & Training,North-Eastern Victoria Region, handed down at the end of June, highlights the need for organisations to appreciate that in some circumstances they will not succeed in litigation. Whether in the role of applicant or respondent, it is an essential element of participating in legal proceedings to understand the difference between an appropriately maintained claim/defence or one which is without merit. 

It is then essential for an organisation to take steps and make decisions based on appropriate legal advice, a coherent strategy and an honest assessment of the likelihood of success – and never on the desire to be "right" or because of "the principle.”

Somasundaram demonstrates just how horribly wrong it can go when a party remains entrenched in its position despite its better judgment – to the tune of almost $90,000. 
The background of the case
Ms Somasundaram was a teacher at Sherbrooke Community School. She had previously made bullying complaints. In 2015, Ms Somasundaram's employment at the school was terminated for "disgraceful, improper or unbecoming" conduct. Her apparent crimes? Airing a list of grievances at a school meeting, emailing complaints and criticisms of colleagues and the school's leadership to the teaching distribution list, and then ignoring an instruction to cease. Ms Somasundaram accordingly filed an application for Orders to Produce against the Victorian Department of Education & Training (DET). 

After the hearing had already begun, the DET conceded that the dismissal could be considered harsh and accepted that reinstatement was appropriate. The DET further withdrew the assistant principal's evidence and other witness statements as it concluded that there was no need for hearings to continue. 

However, despite these concessions, the DET attempted to maintain an argument that the teacher should not be reinstated because there had been an "irretrievable breakdown of trust and confidence" between the school and the teacher. The DET then sought to introduce new evidence and attempted to file new submissions as to what constituted harshness. 

In July 2015, Commissioner Ryan determined that the DET was unreasonable in attempting to force the teacher to reply to its arguments and respond to its defence in circumstances where it had already conceded that the dismissal could be considered harsh. 

Indeed, Commissioner Ryan considered it inappropriate that the DET had responded to the remedy application at all, given its concessions and acknowledgement that doing so was "without reasonable cause", and concluded that the DET's attempts to introduce new witnesses and evidence at a late stage in the proceedings was inappropriate. He therefore ruled that Ms Somasundaram's dismissal was "harsh, unjust and unreasonable." 

In October 2015, the DET was ordered by FWC Deputy President Anne Gooley to reinstate the employment of Ms Somasundaram. In addition, Ms Somasundaram was awarded full back-pay of her salary to the date of her dismissal in February 2015.
So what did the DET do so wrong?
According to Commissioner Ryan's first decision on costs in March 2016, the DET's arguments that Ms Somasundaram should not have her job back and attempts to maintain that the DET had a valid reason for her dismissal were akin to the insistence of the shopkeeper in the much-loved Monty Python "Dead Parrot" sketch that the titular bird was not in fact deceased but was simply "resting", despite the bleedingly obvious evidence to the contrary. 

The DET may have been able to maintain this argument – if it had not already conceded that its decision for terminating the employment was harsh, and withdrawn evidence. 

Commissioner Ryan also made reference to the Black Knight sketch, saying “The humour in both of those Monty Python sketches arises from the sheer absurdity of the situation portrayed. The same sense of absurdity is found in the actions of the respondent.”
Lessons for all employers
The FWC ordered that the DET pay $87,000 towards the legal costs of Ms Somasundaram. If the DET had accepted early on that it had harshly dismissed the employee and submitted to the FWC for sentencing, it could have saved almost $90,000. The lesson here? Decisions are ultimately decided on fairness, and organisations must reflect at every stage of a case on the reasonableness of their actions.        

Harriet Stacey 

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