In Australia, at least one in five individuals experience a mental health condition in any given year. It’s becoming increasingly important that managers understand how to support employees with mental health conditions. What many fail to realise, is that mental health difficulties do not occur in a vacuum—they affect not only the individual but also their family, friends and work colleagues.
Mental health conditions cost our community up to $180 billion each year. Depression results in six million working days being lost each year. Stress has now become the number one workplace health and safety claim in Australia and mental illness is the biggest barrier to workforce participation. Consequently, employers and supervisors must know how to manage mental health in their workplace to be able to properly support their employees.
Despite the growing awareness of mental health conditions, 50% of managers still believe that none of their colleagues are affected. Leaders must first understand that the presence of mental health conditions is not an ‘if’. Mental health conditions will occur, but with early identification and appropriate support and treatment, people can and will get better. People with mental health conditions make a valuable contribution to their workplaces. Incorporating the appropriate mental health initiatives and policies ensures that employees feel safe and supported.
The benefits and barriers to a mentally healthy workplace
There are many benefits to having a mentally healthy workplace for both employers and employees.
These benefits include improved productivity, reduced absenteeism and presenteeism and fewer compensation claims. Research has shown that through successful implementation of workplace mental health programs and policy, organisations on average can expect a return on investment (ROI) of $2.30.
Overall positive mental health at work means that employees feel more supported, engaged and motivated.
There can be barriers when addressing mental health at work. Many people feel uncertain and worry that their employer and colleagues will react negatively to their diagnosis. This fear that mental health discrimination in the workplace will impact their career prospects restricts people from disclosing their condition.
It is incredibly important that organisations have open and clear communication surrounding mental health to ensure that all employees feel comfortable disclosing if they are struggling and need extra support.
Everyone experiences mental health conditions differently. Some people experience repeated episodes of anxiety and depression throughout their life, while others may only have one episode.
The impact on day-to-day life also varies, with some people being able to continue work with no issue, others needing extra support and some need to take some time away from work.
As people may not be able to recognise their own symptoms of mental health or might be unwilling to disclose, managers need to be able to identify changes in behaviour that correlate to warning signs of anxiety, depression and prolonged work-related stress.
Symptoms and common behaviours of anxiety
- appearing restless, tense and on edge
- excessive worry and emotional distress
- becoming overwhelmed and upset easily
- avoidant behaviour
- irrational thinking
- physical anxiety reactions (difficulty breathing, stomach pains)
- inability to complete tasks or meet deadlines
- difficulty making decisions and appearing apprehensive
Symptoms and common behaviours of depression
- loss of self-confidence, poor self-esteem
- unusually persistent sad mood
- withdrawal from social events
- increased irritability and frustration
- out of proportion moodiness
- increased sensitivity
- increased absenteeism and tardiness
- a lack of care for work in general
- increased complaints about fatigue and pain
- being reckless, taking unnecessary risks
- difficulty concentrating or making decisions
- changes in appetite, weight gain or loss
- increased alcohol and drug use
Rights and responsibilities
According to Work Health & Safety legislation and the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth) if an employee’s mental health condition does not affect their job or the health and safety of their colleagues then they have no legal obligation to disclose their condition. This applies to current employees and potential employees going through the recruitment process.
Australian employers have a legal obligation to take steps to reduce or limit the negative effect of workplace mental health and safeguard the right of those with mental health conditions. According to Safe Work Australia employers must ensure that the workplace environment does not harm mental health or worsen an existing condition.
According to the Australian-wide Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth) it is unlawful to both indirectly and directly discriminate against mental health conditions. This means that failure to make reasonable adjustments for a worker with a mental health condition may constitute discrimination.
Under the Australian-wide Privacy Act 1998 (Cth) employers must respect the privacy of their employees and not disclose any information about their mental health condition without their permission. Employers can disclose information without permission if they believe that their employee is in immediate danger or putting others in immediate danger.
Managing mental health in the workplace
If you are concerned about one of your employee’s mental health it is important to have a plan ready that outlines how to approach the person, what you will say and how you say it.
The topic of mental health can be confronting and uncomfortable. It is important that you reflect on your own mental health as conversations like this may be triggering and harmful if you are already in a negative mental space. If you feel like you are not in a good space or do not have a developed rapport with the person, ask another manager or someone from human resources for help.
If you feel like you are in the right headspace to have a conversation with the person, prepare by undertaking the following:
- schedule the conversation in a comfortable and private environment
- allow enough time to really talk—you don’t want to rush it
- think about their communication style and what approach they will respond best to
- think about what you will say if they don’t disclose. Many people can get defensive and deny your concerns when it comes to mental health
Before you start the conversation it’s important to practice in front of the mirror or role play with someone. Rehearse tactics that will make both you and the employee more comfortable during the conversation:
- make it clear that they are not in trouble and that you come from a place of support
- ask open-ended questions
- avoid the input of your own feelings and opinions, you are there to listen and support
- think about body language. Ensure you look actively involved and that you are listening
- to avoid miscommunication, relay what they have told you to ensure you are both on the same page
- create a wellness action plan
Wellness action plan
A wellness action plan is a record of reasonable adjustments agreed between an employee with a mental health condition and their manager. The purpose of the document is to assist the employee in disclosing their mental health condition and increase the manager’s understanding of the employees’ situation. It ensures that both parties have an accurate record of what adjustments have been agreed on.
Some people will be able to continue work without any adjustments whilst others will need some extra support. Some examples of common reasonable adjustments employers might make include:
- offering flexible working able to enable the person to go to appointments or work around the effects of medication
- changing shifts/work site
- reducing workload or specific task
- ensuring that the employee does not return to work after an absence to a backlog of work
It is important to continue to check in with your employee’s progress and adjust the wellness action plan as needed. Even if they need more help, try to reinforce positive feedback as this can boost confidence and feelings of support.
If you feel the employee’s behaviour or productivity is negatively affecting other employees, ensure that you check in to see how they are feeling. Discuss with them what adjustments have been made and why, without disclosing personal information of the other employee.
Sometimes the approach of the wellness action plan doesn’t work, or the employee is unwilling to admit that they need help. This may mean you have to make a hard decision to be more firm
If you have attempted to help them multiple times it may be useful to show the employee evidence of decreased performance to demonstrate that their behaviour is in fact affecting their work.
Asking another manager for advice or to join in on the conversation may help the employee realise that they need extra support and that you are here to help them.
If you feel that the employee is putting themselves or others in immediate danger, it is vital that you call emergency services and their emergency contact.
Again, it is important to ensure that other employees feel safe and are supported if they are being negatively affected by the employee’s behaviour.
Mental health workshops
EPIC Assist provides mental health training workshops that empower businesses and their leaders to create a mentally healthy workplace and confidently support their employees with mental illness. The workshops are customisable to suit each business and the individual needs of their staff.
Mental health national support lines
National support lines provide support and education for people struggling with their mental health as well as offer advice to those who are concerned about someone else.
Most of the support lines are available 24/7. Some support lines are specifically aimed at demographics that may need extra support, such as the queer community, men and those who have recently lost a loved one.
- Lifeline: 12 11 14
- Beyondblue: 1300 224 636
- Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467
- GriefLine: 1300 845 745
- Q-Life LGBTQIA+: 1800 184 527
- Men’s Line Australia: 1300 789 978
Australian work health and safety regulators
For more information on mental health workplace regulations and processes please visit the following sites: