Managing Mental Health in the Workplace – Facts, Stats & Practical Tips for Employers

At any given time, one in three Australian workers will be experiencing a mental health condition. Compare this to a decade ago and this figure has almost doubled. In 2018, depression is the most prevalent of mental health disorders suffered by employees (36%), closely followed by anxiety (33%) and stress (31%). Most people do not realise they have a mental health disorder (around 73% of men and 58% of women) and only 46% will seek help or support to manage the condition. Only 17% are actually engaged in treatment.

These concerning statistics form part of the findings from the 2017 study into the state of mental health in Australia – ‘Australia’s Biggest Mental Health Check-In’ – conducted by Medibo and released in April this year.

Further findings highlight the impact of mental health in Australia on the workplace:

  • Depression alone is estimated to cost Australia employers $12.6 billion annually and this figure is rising.
  • Mental health conditions, when left untreated, cost Australian businesses $10.9 billion per year .
  • 9 out of 10 Australian employees believe mentally healthy workplaces are important and only 50% of employees believe their workplaces are mentally healthy .
  • 21% of employees have reported they have taken time off work due to mental health within the past 12 months .

Given these statistics, it is not hard to see why the matter has become one of critical concern for Australian employers in recent years. Below we discuss some potential indicators of mental illness, how they might manifest themselves at work and how employers can appropriately manage this.

Potential Key Indicators

Mental health issues, if left unaddressed, can cause presenteeism, increased absenteeism and can impacting negatively on productivity and quality of work (amongst other things). Coupled with the fact that mental ill-health is still largely considered a taboo subject, this can make addressing the matter somewhat challenging. The Medibo study found that less than half (47%) of Australians would be comfortable disclosing to their manager that they were experiencing a mental health condition. Given that half of all employees suffering from a mental health condition are not comfortable discussing the matter with their employer, it is important employers understand the possible indicators of mental-ill health at work so as to pro-actively manage these situations.

Possible early indicators at work might include (but are not limited to):

  • Out of character behaviour such as irritability, mood swings or social withdrawal
  • Unusual decline in performance
  • Unplanned absences
  • Tension or issues with colleagues
  • Easily distracted or reduced concentration levels
  • Loss of confidence
  • Indecisiveness
  • Frequently tired
  • Sick and “rundown”
  • Insomnia or difficulty sleeping
  • Headaches
  • Dishevelled appearance
  • Gastro-intestinal disorders
  • Unexplained weight loss or gain

Practical Tips for Employers

Given the prevalence of mental health issues within our broader community, Australian businesses will inevitably face challenges associated with mental health in their workplace at some point. Being well placed to support staff experiencing mental health issues and knowing how best to respond when it begins to impact work is necessary to achieve the best possible outcomes for everyone involved. Many employers are uncertain of how to broach the subject and how to manage these situations. If you are in this boat, you are not alone.

Creating a supportive workplace where the lines of communication are open is a critical starting point. Some initiatives employers may consider introducing to help support a mentally healthy work environment, might include:

  • Arranging formal training for managers and team leads on how to appropriately approach mental health issues in the workplace;
  • Holding regular manager/employee catch ups to build relationships and keep the lines of communication open;
  • Holding regular team building events and staff networking opportunities to foster working relationships, conversations between colleagues and a sense of belonging;
  • Asking the question are you ok? and encouraging your organisation to participate in R U Ok week (see https://www.ruok.org.au/);
  • Putting in place an Employee Assistance Program;
  • Offering additional leave options (i.e. mentally healthy leave days, additional personal leave to attend appointments etc.);
  • Appointing a Mental Health First Aider.

As with any illness, a mental health condition should be medically diagnosed. In order to manage absences or impacts on productivity, much like with physical injuries, any time away from work or necessary modifications to work systems/ processes/ hours or work etc. should be supported by reasonable medical evidence.

If an employer believes an employee is presenting with indicators that suggest a mental illness is present, and there is a genuine concern for the employee’s wellbeing the employer may be able to direct the employee to attend a fitness for work assessment (FFWA). This approach is not without risk, if the direction to attend a FFWA is for reasons other than concern for the employee’s well-being and ability to safely perform their role.

Any FFWA should assess the employee’s ability to safely perform the inherent requirements of their position with sufficient detail, should the employee be deemed fit (or partially fit) to understand what modifications to the role should be made (if any). The benefits of a FFWA include:

  • Meeting duty of care obligations
  • Supporting the employee to return to full duties faster
  • Minimising absenteeism and the subsequent impact on colleagues absorbing the work
  • Mitigating the risk of future workers compensation claims
  • Workplace adjustment requests should be based on a medical assessment provided by an appropriate medical practitioner.

Where an employee is accessing their personal leave for absences due to mental ill-health, employers may require staff to meet notice and evidence requirements in accordance with company policies and procedures.

External Support

There are a number of organisations that provide counselling and other support services to assist people experiencing a mental health conditions. Employers and employees have access to these free resources. Some of these are listed below.

  • Beyond Blue 1300 224 636
  • Lifeline Australia 13 11 14
  • Mental Health Emergency Response Line 1300 555 788

Many EAP services also offer counselling and support services for Managers managing employees who are experiencing mental health conditions.

CCI offers a ‘Managing Mental Health in the Workplace’ Tool Kit which contains useful templates and guidance notes for employers looking to mitigate the risks associated with mental ill- health in the workplace.

For more information on any of the above, contact CCI’s Employee Relations Advice Centre team on 9365 7660 or advice@cciwa.com