How to recognise and address mental health issues in the workplace

Author: Harrison HR | Blog

Mental health is an ongoing and prevalent health concern within Australia and this is being reflected in our workplaces.  In fact, one in five Australians aged 16-85 experience a mental illness in any given year. The most common mental illnesses are depression, anxiety, bi-polar and substance use disorder.

It is estimated that untreated mental health conditions cost Australian workplaces approximately $10.9 billion per year. This comprises of $4.7 billion in absenteeism, $6.1 billion in presenteeism and $146 million in compensation claims.

Employers have the power, and the responsibility, to help employees whose lives may be affected by a mental health condition.

Employees who feel that they are able to work in a trusting workplace perform better and also have improved mental health. This is referred to as “psychological safety”.

A comprehensive understanding of mental illness as well as proactive processes for dealing with mental health in the workplace will help employers:

  • Create a work environment where all employees feel safe, respected and protected
  • Reduce absenteeism and increase employee happiness, productivity and engagement
  • Meet employer obligations and due diligence
  • Avoid potential adverse action or unfair dismissal claims

In this blog post, we’ll take a look at some of the ways you can help improve employee mental health outcomes within your workplace.

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To start with, here’s some of the potential signs your employees may be experiencing mental health issues 

  • Poor productivity
  • Significant mood changes
  • Appearing tired, fatigued or agitated
  • Noticeable decline in their level of personal care/grooming
  • Withdrawal, avoiding colleagues
  • Emotional responses to feedback
  • Displaying negative thought patterns or bizarre thinking
  • Evidence of heightened use of alcohol, prescription drugs or illicit drugs

Hazards in the workplace which can contribute to mental health issues can include:

  • Too much/too little work
  • Poor change management
  • Pressure to perform
  • Poor communication
  • Poor relationships with co-workers 
  • Low role clarity
  • Environmental factors e.g. poor lighting, dirty surroundings
  • Bullying and harassment

The importance of educating employees about mental health

Educating employees, providing resources and assigning shared responsibilities around mental health helps to remove the stigma attached to mental health conditions.

Employees who feel that mental health is understood and supported by management are more likely to come forward if they experiencing problems. This allows for early intervention, reduced absenteeism as well as increased productivity and engagement at work. 

Examples of how to promote mental health awareness in the workplace include:

  • Running information sessions on mental health for employees as well as training sessions for managers
  • Running mental health awareness events and activities e.g. R U OK Day afternoon tea 
  • Formalising a mental health policy through HR

Click here to learn more about starting a R U OK? conversation in the workplace

Effective control measures for addressing mental health issues

Employers do have a legal responsibility, as far as is reasonably practical, for the health and safety of their employees. This includes mental health and safety. 

If mental health due diligence has not been discussed at Board level, then employer obligations are not being met.

Control measures for addressing mental health issues can include:

  • Evaluating work design and demands and putting controls in place to reduce stress, improve the working environment and increase work satisfaction
  • Proactive plans for change management
  • Ensuring there are clear reporting lines/structures for dealing with mental health issues
  • Appointing a mental health first aider
  • Offering flexible working arrangements
  • Developing mentoring and peer support systems
  • Providing access to counselling services and/or specialist support groups
  • Ensuring safe and healthy work conditions
  • Implementing an employee assistance program (EAP)

Key policies and procedures to implement

  • An overarching policy with a commitment to providing a safe and healthy workplace
  • A policy which addresses managing mental illness issues in the workplace and deals with matters such as consultation, confidentiality and training
  • Broad equity and non-discrimination policies, including disability and mental health
  • A policy related to harassment and bullying (or include this in an OHS or equity policy)
  • A policy to enable feedback
  • Policies and procedures for providing reasonable adjustments so that requests are dealt with promptly, fairly and appropriately.

 Making reasonable adjustments

  • Considering the inherent requirements for the role and adjusting if at all possible or appropriate
  • Considering the employees’ mental fitness for the task
  • Considering being open to a different way of doing the role i.e. flexible hours, reduced workload, gradual return, change of location etc.
  • More breaks

Reasonable adjustment does not mean

  • Changing the inherent requirements of the role if not possible or appropriate
  • Providing permanent alternative duties
  • Adjustments which would incur unjustifiable hardship for the employer

What can happen if workplaces don’t implement measures to address mental health issues?

Employers need to be mindful of dismissing an employee due to poor work performance if the employee has an underlying mental health issue.

Failure to recognise reasonably noticeable signs of mental illness and further failure to make formal enquires into the health of the employee can be cause for a successful unfair dismissal claim.

With the right frameworks and attitudes in place, employers will be better equipped to deal with mental health issues early for the ultimate health and benefit of workers and the company as a whole.

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If you need some guidance on how to create a mentally healthy workplace and/or manage mental health issues, talk to the team at Harrison Human Resources.

With our flexible HR Consulting and Outsourcing services, we are able to provide expert advice and assistance on a short or long term basis.

Simply click here to request a no obligation phone consult today. Or give us a call on 1300 544 803.

We’ll lend an expert ear to your concerns and discuss some suggested steps and strategies for improving mental health outcomes for your employees and your workplace as a whole.   

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