The importance of managing mental health in the workplace

Our mental health awareness is increasing, with more people speaking openly about their personal experiences. Mental health is as important as physical health, with the effects of one potentially impacting the other.

Usually mental illnesses are caused by factors outside of work but there can be a flow-on effect into the workplace.

Employers have a legal obligation to provide safe and healthy workplaces for their employees, so far as is reasonably practicable. This duty of care applies equally to physical and mental health.

Our article focuses on the importance of managing mental health at work and provides some options for managers to consider in providing reasonable adjustments to meet the needs of workers who may be experiencing or are affected by mental health issues.

Why is managing mental health important?

Creating a healthy workplace is not just good for staff, it’s good for business. Healthy workplaces can help to reduce absenteeism and increase employee morale and productivity.

We all get sick from time to time and there is a tendency to think of illnesses or injuries as only physical such as the common cold or flu, asthma, cancer, or a broken bone.

Mental illness is just as common as other types of illnesses. Statistics show that one out of every five Australians experience a mental health condition at some stage in their lifetime, with depression and anxiety being one of the most common mental health problems. Mental illnesses or mental health disorders affect people of all ages, genders and backgrounds. They can affect how a person feels, thinks and behaves and can be temporary or develop into a long-term illness.

A mental illness can show up differently in each individual but some signs that could indicate that an employee is experiencing a mental health issue is if they seem more anxious and worried, have difficulty making decisions, are having difficulty sleeping or seem to be distancing themselves socially from the rest of their team.

Employees may be experiencing a mental health issue themselves, or they may be supporting a family member with a mental health issue.

Managers have a responsibility to assist workers experiencing mental illness by making reasonable adjustments, where possible, to support and enable the worker to perform their duties safely and effectively.

How can managers help employees?

The good news is that there are steps that employers can take to reduce the impact of mental illness and improve their employee’s well-being. As with any employee-related matter, the first step to effectively managing mental health issues in the workplace is to talk to your employee. A mental illness should be treated with the same respect and confidentiality as any other physical illness or injury.

Conversations where an employee’s mental health or other illnesses will be discussed can be difficult. They are best had in private and it is important to make sure you have time to properly listen to the employee. It is likely to be difficult for the employee to talk about, so they need to know they have your full attention and are not rushed.

Having lunch or a chat over a coffee are simple ways to connect with people. Employers and other co-workers can offer support by asking “Hey, you don’t seem like yourself lately. Is there anything I can do to help?” or “Is there anything you would like to talk about?”

An employee does not need to disclose any personal health information but if they do, employers can seek guidance and advice from the employee’s doctor or other health professionals, with the employee’s permission.

If an employee doesn’t disclose a mental illness, it is still a manager’s responsibility to monitor the employee’s health at work, identify any risks to the employee’s health and safety and to offer assistance as required. If a manager is concerned that an employee is not fit to be at work, the employer may be able to ask the employee to consult their doctor or other health professional.

Finally, ensuring that all employees have opportunities to take time away from work to re-set and re-charge is important. Taking a break from the daily grind helps to reduce stress, improves physical and mental health and can help to boost workplace productivity. Time away from work can also help employees who are supporting a family member with a mental health illness.

What are some examples of reasonable adjustments that can be offered to employees?

Mental illnesses can affect individuals differently and there is not a one-size fits all approach which means that possible adjustments will vary, depending on the employee’s individual circumstances, their job and their working environment. Some people will continue to work as usual with a mental illness and have no impact on their work performance.

Any adjustments to an employee’s job, workplace or working arrangements should be discussed with an employee and implemented according to advice from a doctor or other health professional.

Some examples of adjustments that can be made in a workplace are:

  • different start and/or finish times or temporary part-time work
  • writing down work instructions with pictures of the task and placing these in a visible location near the employee’s work area or having a co-worker give verbal prompts
  • breaking large projects into smaller, more manageable tasks
  • allowing extra time to complete tasks
  • scheduling additional short breaks
  • extending deadlines for tasks
  • reviewing workload amongst a team, to ensure an even distribution and variety of work

These are just some options, and managers and employees (and relevant health professionals) should work together to come up with a solution that suits both the business and the individual employee’s needs and ensures the employee is still able to do the inherent requirements of their job.

Further advice

Our advisers are ready to answer your questions. For advice on this topic, or any other workplace relations matter, Employment Plus clients who have placed two or more candidates have free access to the Ai Group Workplace Advice Line.

Call 1300 862 217 8.30am – 5:15pm AEDT Monday to Friday