Mental health: A new frontier in employee safety

by 13 Mar 2012

Since the mid 1990s, there has been a significant increase in the incidence of claims for psychological injury against employers because of workplace stress. These cases cost enormous amounts of money, compromise employee wellbeing and job prospects, and destabilise organisational culture to such an extent that it may even reduce a business’ competitive efficiency.

It is important for employers to realise that these cases involve genuine mental illness brought about by stress. This is not just a case of an employee feeling a little blue – though depression can have emotional aspects – psychological injury is recognised in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental disorders (DSM IV), and often incapacitating, requires medication and, most importantly, it can be life threatening.

If an employee works his or herself into a state of depression and anxiety, because they are dedicated and enthusiastic, or because of time pressures and workload, there may be no defence for an employer facing legal action. The law states that an employer has the power to stop someone suffering harm in the workplace and imposes statutory and common law obligations to provide a safe work place, and, when these matters reach the courts, a high standard and onus is placed upon employers to act reasonably to prevent circumstances that cause these injuries.

The same injuries can also be caused bullying and harassment at the workplace. Anti-discrimination laws impose on employers statutory obligations to protect employees from harassment, but there is still a lot of work needed to create workplace cultures that actively recognize the problem of stress and its consequences.

By way of example, over recent years, news media reports of bullying in the New South Wales Ambulance Service has shown what can happen in an organisation when employees work in highly stressful conditions. Paramedics respond to emergencies with only a basic description of what to expect. They may enter a life threatening environment for themselves and for the person they are sent to treat. Situations such as these would reasonably be described as having a high level of demand and a low level of control.  Tragically for the service there have been nine suicides over the past 12 years.

Employers must protect their employees by formulating policies and procedures that minimise the potential for employees to be exposed to harm. Often this means taking a look at the workplace culture and working to foster a safer workplace. In doing so they will protect their businesses from risk and liability.

If an enthusiastic employee is going home late and regularly working weekend after weekend, that person’s employer should have in place systems and policies that identify the behaviour early so that counselling or management of the employee’s circumstances can be implemented. Healthy work cultures should involve policies that prevent employees from working through time intended for recreation with their families. 

The Fair Work Act contains provisions for ‘reasonable additional hours’ that deal with work outside normal hours. Employers who allow employees to work for more than is reasonable are potentially creating a dangerous environment and may be leaving themselves open to liability for injuries that might occur.

Nowadays, a lot of employers offer confidential counselling for employees and sensible, practical and responsible strategies are often put in place. Employers such as these can show that they have policies and procedures, which are in place to help reduce or avoid liability altogether.

The issue of mental health is a new frontier in employee safety. Our society and culture create an environment that allows for stress and these injuries will continue to occur. Putting in place mechanisms that help to respond meaningfully is the best way to start by providing a dual benefit, to employers who can show that their workplaces are safe and compliant, and for employees seeking balance in their working lives.

Such an approach can lead to improvements in efficiency, a happier culture, less absenteeism, fewer HR issues because of staff turnover, and reduced insurance costs and time spent dealing with lawyers and courts.


About the author

Robin Young is a partner with Holman Webb lawyers. For further information visit:


  • by De Backman-Hoyle 13/03/2012 5:05:17 PM

    Thank you Robin for raising such an important topic, as a mental health first aid instructor with a target audience of middle managers I often find even when managers are provided with the current legislation and regulations on the mental health risk factors within the organisational settings there isn't the adequate skills training on how to have those difficult conversations related to mental health deterioration at work .
    I takes a business with a culture of courage to prepare and train staff about mental health illnesses and provide a safe psychological environment as an alternative.

    We are offering three complimentary 12 hr mental health training programs for NFP within the next six months as part of our corporate contribution pledge. If you know of a NFP that could benefit from MHFA within their workplace and that can provide a suitable training venue please put them in contact with us this is a substantial saving for a NFP.

    De Backman-Hoyle

  • by Bernie Althofer 14/03/2012 10:34:07 AM

    Over the years I have spoken to a number of people about workplace bullying and the psychological trauma they have experienced. The level of angst and frustration coming from them about how they are viewed because unlike a physical injury, a psychological injury is much harder to 'see'.

    When organisations have the courage to acknowledge the 'invisible' injuries being caused to workers at all levels, then perhaps those workers who have a mental health issue will feel more confident in coming forward.

    At the moment, it seems that some people believe that by coming forward about their mental health issues, they will be targeted or somehow made to feel inferior, and woe betide the senior manager who reports they are 'stressed'.

    Getting people to acknowledge that reacting adversely to some situations can result in a need to seek professional assistance will only happen when the workplace culture is such that everyone (at all levels) acknowledges the impact that psychological trauma has. Creating healthy environments when even the difficult topics can be talked about openly. Changing the culture may result in more timely interventions in treatment, or even changing workplace environments to make them less conducive to being contributors to mental health issues.

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