Mental health in the workplace

by Contributor20 Aug 2018

Dianne Hollyoak provides 10 tips for effective management of employees’ mental health

Mental ill-health costs Australian businesses $10.9bn per annum. This does not include the indirect human cost, such as high turnover of staff, presenteeism, increased absenteeism and subsequent use of personal leave. Mental ill-health, if not managed properly by the business, can result in claims of bullying, harassment, discrimination, workers’ compensation, unfair dismissal and general protection.

It is estimated that 45% of Australians will experience mental illness at some stage of their lives, whether caused by anxiety, depression, substance use disorders, or other factors. Some Australians experience much higher rates of mental illness than the general population, such as Indigenous Australians and people living with disabilities.

With the increasing incidence of mental ill-health in Australia, businesses can no longer afford to ignore it. Taking a proactive approach to caring for employees can significantly improve workplace culture, showing staff they are cared for. This in turn boosts productivity and improves sta­ff retention rates, impacting the bottom line.

Employers have a legal obligation to help employees with mental ill-health and ensure they don’t su­ffer discrimination in the workplace as a result of their condition. Privacy is key, and managers must be aware of their obligations of non-disclosure. It is recommended that companies seek advice on specific state and territory legislation regarding return-to-work programs, particularly if a workers’ compensation claim is involved.

10 tips for managing employees’ mental health

  1. Provide a safe and healthy workplace, identifying practices that may contribute to the mental illness of workers, and taking action to eliminate or minimise risks identified.
  2. Have a workplace Mental Health Plan and train managers in implementing it.]
  3. Have an Incident Response Plan and make sure key stakeholders are trained to act the right way at the right time.
  4. Have an Employee Assistance Program in place and regularly assess its services, surveying your employees regarding its effectiveness.
  5. Offer flexible work arrangements, where feasible, that can accommodate people living with mental illness.]
  6. Ensure managers are familiar with procedures for handling unexplained or other absences, and that they cater for employees who are suffering from mental ill-health.
  7. Ensure managers are trained in managing employees’ conduct and performance, especially when they are aware that an individual has a mental illness.
  8. Know your legal obligations with respect to managing employees that are suffering from a mental illness or disorder, whether or not it is a result of workplace stress.
  9. Know how to effectively respond to employees who are unable to perform their duties because of mental ill-health.
  10. Ensure managers are sufficiently trained in mental health, employee entitlements, and how best to ensure a mental illness does not become work related and avoid claims arising from mismanagement of the employee concerned.

Remember that each individual will be different, and so will their needs. Therefore any management of the employee should be tailored to their particular circumstances. Given the prevalence of mental ill-health in Australia, along with the increased focus on mental health in all parts of the community, how your business manages mental health can distinguish you from your competitors, leading to many benefits, the least of which is your ability to attract and retain good staff.

What you can do today

  • Review policies and procedures to ensuremanagers are clear on their legal obligations.
  • Create a Mental Health Plan.
  • Conduct a workplace and safety audit tominimise risk to employees.
  • Have an Incident Response Plan and trainkey stakeholders regularly.
  • Survey employees to gauge efficiency of Employee Assistance Programs.
  • Schedule regular performance managementtraining for managers.

For guidance in this area, call Australian Business Lawyers & Advisors or visit ablawyers.com.au.


Dianne Hollyoak is a director at Australian Business Lawyers & Advisors (ABLA). Serving business and only business, ABLA is trusted by the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and is the leading voice for business in the Fair Work Commission. Contact Dianne directly on 1300 565 846 or dianne.hollyoak@ablawyers.com.au.