Managing Mental Illness in the Workplace

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, October 17, 2018

What can employers do to support and effectively manage employees who may be struggling with their mental health?

With an estimated one in five Australian adults suffering from a mental illness in any given year, this is becoming an increasingly important question for organisations to answer. 

From talking to an employee with a mental illness to addressing performance concerns, here's how employers can help support workers with mental health issues. 

how to talk about mental illness with a worker? 

Employers can't be expected to be experts, but when speaking with an employee about a mental health issue, it is helpful to have a basic understanding of the condition in question. This might include any symptoms, specific terms that relate to the condition and types of medications the employee is likely to be prescribed. 

How conversations are framed is crucial - employers should refer to employees as 'having' mental health conditions, as opposed to 'being' schizophrenic or depressed. Employers should also understand the difference between episodic and chronic mental health issues. 

Prior to conversations with employees about their mental health, employers need to ensure that they are prepared, have planned what they wish to discuss and offered the employee the opportunity to bring a support person with them. Employers may also make use of the assistance of a qualified mental health professional when approaching these meetings. 

concerns regarding an employee's mental health

While a physical injury might be obvious, it can be much more difficult to determine if an employee is struggling with their mental health. It is important for employers to remember that there isn't always an obligation for employees to disclose their mental health status. 

In these circumstances, an employer concerned about an employee's mental health can speak confidentially with them and advise them that they may be able to access support from a formal Employee Assistance Program (EAP). The employer may also wish to ask whether there is anything that they can do to modify or improve the workplace to assist the staff member. 

what to say to other employees

If an affected employee has volunteered details of their mental illness, and has agreed to disclosure, employers may wish to sensitively and respectfully disseminate information about the specific condition, or even arrange for mental health specialists to attend the workplace and provide information. 

Employers must not breach an affected worker's privacy and disclose matters that are personal to them. On some occasions, however, an employee's mental health condition may potentially impact other colleagues, or health and safety and must be disclosed. 

When a disclosure has been made, employers need to ensure co-workers:

  • Are supported in relation to any increased workload arising from their colleague's absence;
  • Have their concerns addressed and discussed in an appropriate forum;
  • Are offered access to internal or external counselling services;
  • Are protected from possible harm. 

Making reasonable adjustments

Workers who are struggling with mental health issues may find that they are able to contribute in a much more substantial way if their employer is prepared to make reasonable adjustments. These could include:

  • Flexible working hours or working from home arrangements
  • Moving an employee's physical location (i.e. into a quieter area, closer to a window, away from a co-worker who is triggering their condition)
  • Permitting employees to record meetings or take electronic notes if they are concerned about their memory. 

Addressing performance concerns

When an employer has concerns about an employee's capacity or capability to perform their duties, it is appropriate to apply the organisation's standard performance management system, and provide support to assist the employee. This support should be offered regardless of whether or not the employee has disclosed a mental health condition. 

Employers should consider:

  • Personal circumstances that may contribute to a worker's performance issue, as would be the case for all workers; 
  • Whether a mental illness may be contributing to the poor performance;
  • The seriousness of the performance concern (as for more serious matters, such as violence, there may be no option but to take strong disciplinary action regardless of whether there is a reason, such as a mental illness); 
  • Whether the performance concern relates to a key part of the job or whether reasonable adjustments can be made;
  • Encourage and enable the worker to discuss the performance concerns and whether there are any health issues that may have impacted on their performance. 

If the concern doesn't resolve and the adjustments don't work, employers may need to revisit the issue at a later date. 

If you'd like more information, check out our series of articles on this topic, starting with Mental Health in the Workplace. WISE can also assist with drafting and implementing policies and guidelines around disclosure, reasonable adjustments and speaking to colleagues about mental health.

Mental Health in the Workplace

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Making sure that your staff are fit and healthy, enabling them to perform their duties at an optimal level, forms an essential part of being an employer of choice. But beyond ensuring that your staff are physically capable, it is essential to also look after their mental wellbeing. 

Underestimating the importance of mental health in the workplace is likely to have lasting impacts on your workers, your business and clients. 

OHS legislation requires employers to provide a safe and healthy work environment for all workers, which does not cause ill health or aggravate existing conditions.

In a series of articles, we'll examine the impact of mental health issues in the workplace, how to take appropriate steps to support staff suffering these conditions, and how you can promote mental wellness in your organisation. 

WHAT IS mental health?

Mental health is about emotional, psychological and social wellbeing. For an employer, this means keeping an eye on whether your staff are struggling to keep on top of things inside and outside of work, and taking steps to assist them with dealing with any difficulties that may be impacting their productivity. 

There are many types of mental illness, including depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, personality disorders (such as borderline personality disorder), bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.

the scope of the issue

According to the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), around 45% of Australians aged between 16 and 85 will suffer from the symptoms of mental illness at some point during their lives. In any given year, one in five adults will deal with a mental illness. 

Some workers will commence their employment already suffering from symptoms of mental illness, while others may develop their mental illness while at work. 

In many cases, the mental illness will develop separately from circumstances in the workplace. In others, a negative or "unhealthy" work environment will contribute to staff developing mental health issues or may exacerbate underlying conditions. 

Some factors which can contribute to poor mental health in the workplace include job stress, poor workload management or unrealistic deadlines, poor communication, bullying and an overall lack of support.

the impact of poor mental health

Research shows that the cost to business of failing to pay proper attention to mental health is significant. 

The AHRC reports that workers compensation claims relating to stress and associated mental illnesses cost Australian businesses $10 billion every year. The failure of businesses to recognise the potential impact of mental health issues and failure to implement preventative or remedial measures such as early intervention, has been estimated to cost over $6.5 billion per annum. 

Absenteeism due to mental illness is another issue, with an estimated 3.2 days lost each year per worker. 

The difference between job stress and psychological injury

When it comes to identifying mental health issues in the workplace, there is a difference between work stress and psychological injury. 

Psychological injury includes behavioural, cognitive and emotional symptoms which have the potential to significantly impact a worker's ability to perform their job and interact with co-workers. 

This can be distinguished from job stress, which is generally a reaction to a specific situation which can be resolved, and is not a standalone injury.

To disclose or not to disclose 

In some circumstances, it is important for employees to disclose their mental health status. This is particularly the case if they are taking medication which could affect their ability to perform their usual employment, or if there are general concerns about safety or interactions with other staff. 

An employer has an obligation not to discriminate against staff because of their physical or mental attributes, including their mental health.

Managing and supporting mental health in the workplace

Employers can provide support by having guidelines in place for how to talk to a worker who has disclosed that they are suffering from mental health difficulties, and how employees can adjust to dealing with a colleague with a mental health issue. 

It's also essential for employers to know how to address performance concerns involving employees who are experiencing mental health struggles, without discriminating or taking ill-considered disciplinary steps.

Creating a safe and healthy workplace for all

This starts with non-discriminatory employment practices and implementing long-term strategies to promote a healthy culture and a positive workplace where staff feel they are making a meaningful contribution to an overall goal, are supported and happy to come to work. 

It's also important to create direct services to assist workers with mental health issues who require support and adjustments in the workplace. According to the AHRC, every dollar spent on identifying, supporting and managing workers' mental health issues, yields nearly a 500% return in increased productivity. 

It is highly likely that at least one worker in your workplace will, at some point in time, have a long or short-term mental illness. While you do not need to become an expert in mental health, having a better understanding of what mental illness is (including its possible effects on a worker) enables you to be more effective in handling issues that may arise.  

Can You Deny Access to Workplace Investigation Documents?

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, July 18, 2018


Parties involved in a workplace investigation will often wish to gain access to documents that form part of the process. A difficult question for investigators is when - or if - it will be appropriate to release particular information. The reason for the request and the nature of the information will be key considerations, plus the investigator must find the best way to ensure that the access process is fair and transparent. As a recent case involving Australia Post reminds us, investigators need to carefully consider any decision to deny access to workplace investigation documents.

When to disclose information 

During the course of a workplace investigation it is entirely appropriate to keep parties informed of progress. In many cases, it will be quite simple to provide general information that keeps parties up-to-date, yet preserves any necessary privacy boundaries. One regular complaint from those under investigation is that they were 'kept in the dark' at every turn of the process. However, overt secrecy is often not necessary; disclosing information about delays, the nature of inquiries and the broad substance of allegations for example will generally not be problematic.

Another situation where information will need to be provided is when the investigator is required to do so by law. This could include as a response to a subpoena, summons or other court / police request, and should be responded to promptly.

Why should information be disclosed?

In many ways, it is simply professional best-practice to keep stakeholders informed of the progress of an investigation.

One specific advantage in providing regular updates and briefings is the effective management of expectations. Investigations can leave people feeling anxious, and the process can become impeded if individuals are forced to continually complain about non-disclosure. By regularly providing information about the scope, goals and process of the investigation, the 'temperature' in the workplace can be kept under control.

Providing information is also necessary to ensure transparency and accountability. The investigative process should, as far as possible, be able to withstand outside scrutiny both during and following completion. If it is later revealed that one party received greater assistance or exposure to materials than another, the chances of utilising the investigation outcomes will be greatly reduced.

A case in point

In the case of 'LC' and Australia Post (Freedom of information) [2017] AICmr 31, an employee made an FOI request for information relating to a workplace investigation.

Australia Post declined the request on the basis that the material was exempt according to the 'personal private information' exemption under s47F of the FOI Act. However, the commission found that the exemption does not apply to information that is likely to have a 'substantial adverse effect' on a person subject to investigation.

Investigators must ensure that the process remains transparent, and that any and all decisions to prevent disclosure are carefully considered in accordance with the legislation.

ensuring procedural fairness

One common mistake made by new workplace investigators is to see procedural fairness as a lightweight idea without much application in the real world. We know from experience that nothing could be further from the truth. Those under investigation deserve to know the nature of allegations made, to be given the opportunity to be properly heard, to have a support person if needed, to be questioned by an unbiased individual, and of course to have all relevant evidence considered in the decision. Disclosing information in an appropriate way, and at the right time, can certainly assist the overall fairness of the process - and prevent problems in the future.

When not to disclose

Although transparency and fairness are important elements of the workplace investigation, there are times where information should certainly not be disclosed. The right to privacy might require the investigator to protect information such as addresses, sensitive personal material or intellectual property matters as examples.

Further, it might be necessary to redact documents in order to protect anonymity or to withhold certain aspects of an allegation. However, overall investigators must ensure that a party is not substantially disadvantaged by the non-disclosure - a fine balancing act indeed.

The Australia Post case confirms our own experience in conducting fair workplace investigations. We certainly know that each situation will depend upon the particular facts when it comes to disclosing information to the parties involved.

If you need assistance on whether or not to disclose information during an investigation process, WISE provides supported investigation services and are here to help.