In conducting workplace investigations, both the alleged victim and perpetrator and potentially even witnesses may have an intensely personal reaction to the accusations. But what happens if one of the people involved in a workplace investigation has a mental illness or otherwise suffers from poor mental health?
In this situation, a workplace investigation can be perceived as a direct personal attack – for example, a complainant may feel that the mere fact of an investigation means that they are not taken seriously or believed in their allegations. A respondent to a complaint may feel vilified or victimised by having to respond to the claims at all. In these circumstances, it could be easy for paranoia to creep in during the investigative process.
So what additional steps should a prudent employer take during the investigative process when dealing with an employee who struggles with their mental health?
POTENTIAL CONSEQUENCES OF FAILING TO CONSIDER MENTAL HEALTH
The State of Workplace Mental Health in Australia report, released by TNS Australia and Beyond Blue, has found that 45% of all adult Australians will experience a mental health condition at one point in their lives. In addition, untreated mental illness costs Australian Workplaces almost $11 billion annually.
This financial cost (calculated on the basis of absentee figures, ‘presenteeism’ where employees are physically present but not performing to their maximum capabilities, and compensation claims) is reason enough to take mental health in the workplace seriously, and to ensure that workplace investigations do not run roughshod over the rights of employees with mental health concerns.
However, even more concerning is the potential for a poorly handled workplace investigation to exacerbate an employee’s mental illness or even to cause a new psychological injury.
It is crucial for employers to ensure that workplace investigations are conducted sensitively and have regard to any disclosed or hidden mental health issues suffered by employees. This is particularly the case given that it is an employer’s legal obligation to ensure that workplaces are free from conduct which could reasonably be foreseen to cause injury, including psychological injury, to employees. A failure to do so can leave the employer exposed to a compensation claim.
WHAT SHOULD AN EMPLOYER’S RESPONSE BE?
Employers must ensure that investigators don’t dismiss signs of paranoia as an employee being ‘silly’ or simply difficult.
It’s important to recognise that the employee does genuinely feel under threat, without agreeing with them, and to lay out any evidence clearly.
It can also be helpful to detail how the investigation will proceed to avoid the risk of misunderstandings, for example an employee deciding that more than a week has passed therefore an adverse finding must have been made against them.
Honesty and fairness are key in any workplace investigation, but it is particularly important to demonstrate both when dealing with an employee who is feeling under attack. It’s essential to remain patient, and work on building trust and rapport in interviews.
Employees should also be able to access a support person of their choice to participate in any interviews or other formal steps of the investigation.
Being available and following through on any actions that have been decided on, however minor, may also help lower a fearful employee’s anxiety.
If the initial complaint has caused or substantially contributed to an employee’s poor mental health, and this has resulted in the employee receiving a medical certificate, an employer should consider not permitting the employee to return to work until the investigation has been resolved. Any decision along those lines should be made strictly in consultation with the employee’s medical team and the employee themselves.
HOW WE CAN HELP
Taking these simple steps will help to ensure that your staff do not feel victimised and do not become unduly paranoid or concerned about the investigative process and potential outcomes.
At WISE Workplace, we can help you navigate your way through the potential minefield of workplace investigations. We offer full investigation services if you prefer to outsource, and also training to assist you in running your own investigations.