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.

To Disclose or Not to Disclose

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, October 10, 2018

For many employees, one of the most difficult aspects of navigating the modern workplace is deciding whether to disclose a mental health issue.

Not every employee is required to be open about their condition, and there is often a fear of the potential consequences for their career if they are. 

We take a look at when an employee is obligated to disclose, what employers must do, and the pros and cons of disclosure. 

what does the law say about the employee's responsibility? 

When dealing with mental illness in the workplace, employees are not required to share details of their condition with employers unless there are legitimate concerns that it may affect their ability to perform their role properly. 

For example, employees who operate heavy machinery but are struggling with alcoholism, drug addiction or are reliant on certain types of medication should advise their employers, so that they do not risk their safety or that of their colleagues. 

Failing to share this information could mean that the employee is in breach of their obligations under Work Health and Safety legislation.

what must employers do?

Commonwealth legislation determines that it is unlawful for employers to discriminate against their employees for a variety of reasons, including discrimination on the basis of a mental health condition. 

According to the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth), employers cannot act in a discriminatory fashion towards employees based on past or future conditions, temporary or permanent conditions, or actual or imputed disabilities. 

Types of discrimination which employees with mental health conditions may face include:

  • Direct discrimination, for instance when a candidate is not hired or an employee is disciplined inappropriately because of their mental health. 
  • Indirect discrimination, for example requiring all employees to eat lunch in the staff lunchroom - which for instance might cause difficulties for employees with anxiety. 

Choosing not to make adjustments for an employee who is struggling with their mental health is a form of discrimination. 

There are also obligations on employers around disclosing an employee's mental health status to others in the organisation. All employment relationships include an inherent requirement of confidentiality, which means that employers are prevented from discussing or disseminating information about their employees' mental health. 

Exceptions can be made in circumstances where the information must be shared in order to prevent or lessen a serious and imminent threat to the life or health of the employee or as required by law.

pros and cons of disclosure

Workers who don't have an obligation to disclose often struggle with the pros and cons of sharing this information with their employers and co-workers. 

A clear advantage of disclosing this information is that colleagues are aware of the circumstances under which the employee is operating and can provide a level of social support. Managers who know that a team member is struggling with mental health issues may well be more sympathetic, and can assist by providing more flexible working arrangements, lessening workloads in times of crisis, or otherwise ensuring that the workplace is generally accommodating of the employee's needs. 

Further, ill-founded rumours or gossip may be avoided by an employee being open about the difficulties they are facing and could help de-stigmatise mental health issues in the workplace. 

Disadvantages include sharing very private information with colleagues, which may be disseminated to other people in the organisation and have the potential to result in harassment or discrimination. This may be particularly relevant in circumstances where the mental health condition is temporary or does not affect the ability of the employee to perform their duties adequately.

mental health and wellbeing in the workplace

Employees can contribute to good mental health at work by:

  • Taking care of themselves
  • Avoiding known triggers
  • Participating in exercise
  • Taking regular breaks during the work day
  • Staying up to date with any medication 
  • Relying on a support network (both inside and outside work)
  • Avoiding external influences like excessive alcohol or drugs. 

If you would like more information on mental health in the workplace, check out our series of articles on Mental Health in the Workplace. WISE Workplace can also assist employers with drafting and implementing policies relating to mental health disclosure.  

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.