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.