Managing mental wellbeing is one of the toughest tasks for a people manager. What legal obligations do employers hold when it comes to mental illness and an employee’s ability to communicate within the workplace? Joydeep Hor responds
- To what degree should an employer take an employee’s mental illness into account when considering the employee’s ability to communicate within the workplace?
Many employees successfully manage their mental health without it impacting on their work. However, some employees may require short-term adjustments to accommodate their condition, and others may require ongoing workplace strategies.
The ability to work with others and to communicate effectively is a key component of a productive work environment. It is appropriate that all employees adhere to the basic rules of behaviour in the workplace, such as treating everyone with courtesy and respect and not interacting in a way that is demeaning, threatening or bullying.
Where an employee has displayed conduct that is of concern in terms of the manner in which he or she is communicating within the workplace, a threshold issue is whether the employee’s mental health
is a contributing factor. Where it is contributing to or exacerbating the communication problem, an employer should make clear that the behaviour is unacceptable, but also explore what reasonable adjustments could be made without compromising the core responsibilities of the job.
For example, an employee might be permitted to work more fl exibly for a specifi ed period (for example, in terms of hours or from home) or to take some form of leave, to minimise the risk of confrontations in the short term. Another strategy might be to establish a temporary reporting structure that limits the interactions the employee has within the workplace. However, allowing an employee to avoid communicating within the workplace altogether, or for an indefinite period, is generally not a viable long-term option, as there are very few types of employment where communication is not regarded as an inherent requirement.
- At what point is it pragmatic to cease disciplinary processes and come to a settlement with an employee who has a mental illness?
There are a number of scenarios where it may be pragmatic to seek to resolve a difficult employment situation with an employee who has a mental illness. They are premised on the notion that the employer has made efforts to date to accommodate and support the employee, and that the issue of any settlement is approached with sensitivity to the employee’s condition.
One scenario is where, despite reasonable adjustments having been made, the problematic conduct is continuing, but the medical evidence is inconclusive as to the likelihood of any improvement of the underlying condition in the foreseeable future.
Another potentially problematic situation that might lend itself to a pragmatic resolution is where the employee has been unwilling over a prolonged period to cooperate over the provision of timely and informative medical documentation to enable the employer to make a fair assessment of the nature of any reasonable adjustments, and the capacity of the employee to perform the key requirements of the job.
Finally, the escalation of conduct to a serious situation, for example involving potential threats to other employees, may warrant swift intervention to bring to an end the consequences of such behaviour for the health and safety of other employees and to restore the equilibrium of the workforce in the short term.
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PEOPLE + CULTURE STRATEGIES