Responding to mental illness – a best practice guide

by John Maguire12 Oct 2015
Mental Health Week has once again thrown the issue back into the headlines, but is there more you could be doing to address mental health issues in your workplace?

Although the stigma around mental health is slowly being loosened, there are still many ways employers are blindly failing to support their workforces’ psychological wellbeing.

HC spoke to Andrew Jewell, senior associate at McDonald Murholme, about what employers can be doing to improve mental health in their workplace. 

In relation to leave, employees can take personal leave for mental health reasons. This would come out of the ten days of personal leave every employee is entitled to in any given year.

“As long as an employee has a medical certificate, they can access this leave – no questions asked,” Jewell told HC.

However, Jewell added that employers should be doing more than simply meeting their minimum obligations when it comes to mental health initiatives.

“Employers should be doing a lot,” he said. “They should be trying to manage a workplace that’s free from internal stress.

“If HR becomes aware of mental illness, they shouldn’t ignore it; they should treat it as an issue, not a disability.”

Jewell explained that employees often choose not to disclose their mental health issues because of a widespread fear that it will count against them.

“Be open about these kinds of things,” he advised. “Keep in mind that each person is different.”


According to Jewell, the number one thing employers managing mental illness need to do is educate their workforce.

“This could mean getting someone external into the office to educate staff, or simply making mental health a topic of discussion in meetings,” he told HC. “The most important thing is ensuring that it’s a non-taboo issue.”

He also advised encouraging employees to talk to their managers about mental wellbeing.

“Try to make these conversations something that isn’t scary,” he suggested.

Managing mental illness

Jewell reminded employers that any company has an obligation under the Health and Safety Act to provide a safe working environment.

“Failure to respond to an aspect of the workplace that is contributing to a mental illness could escalate to a worker’s compensation claim,” he said.

“If an employer is explicitly told about a risk to employees’ mental health, they have an obligation to remove it.”

He added that many employers’ biggest mistake is seeing a worker as a threat upon hearing about a mental illness.

“Employers can fall under this illusion because they fear the employee is a court case waiting to happen,” Jewell said.

“This is often because they don’t know how to deal with it – we see a lot of people who consequently get managed out; they are seen as a threat, not just a workplace issue.”

Good business sense

“Apart from the obvious benefit of the health of the individual, there are several advantages to having mental health initiatives in place,” Jewell said.

“Having a psychologically healthy workforce boosts an organisation’s external reputation – any company hoping to be recognised as an employer of choice needs to realise that this is something people are looking for.”

He added that mental health initiatives also make good financial sense.

“The cold reality is that it’s costly to deal with these issues poorly,” said Jewell. “From a commercial perspective, it makes sense to deal with mental health in a cooperative manner.”

He said that when it came to accommodating employees with mental illnesses, measures he had seen employers take in the past included flexible working patterns and altered working arrangements.

“It shouldn’t just be about meeting a minimum compliance,” Jewell said. “Employers should encourage their staff to have these conversations – it makes good sense on multiple levels.”


Most Read