Take a look around your workplace, or if you are reading this article on public transport have a look at your fellow travellers. As many as one in five Australians experience a mental illness every year. The chances are you probably already know someone with a mental illness.
In recent years public awareness of issues relating to mental health has grown exponentially – and the evidence shows that this is a significant issue for our community. Depression and anxiety disorders are the second largest cause of disability and mortality in Australia . Around one million Australian adults live with depression and over two million have an anxiety disorder.
What do we mean by “mental illness”?
The Australian Human Rights Commission defines Mental illness as: “A health issue that can significantly affect how a person feels thinks, behaves and interacts with other people. Mental illness is real and treatable.”
Mental illness can include a broad spectrum of conditions ranging from depression and anxiety to psychosis, personality disorders and substance abuse disorders.
The impact of mental illness in the workplace
The potential impact of mental illness in the workplace is substantial – loss of productivity due to absenteeism, turnover of staff and the impact on co workers, as well as the cost of government subsided medical care including medication and counselling. It is estimated that job related depression for example costs the community $730 million every year .
So much of our lives are spent at work, and our very identity is often tied up with what we “do” – Work plays a vital role in our emotional, social and physical wellbeing and so employers play an important role in helping support employees with mental health issues and those working with them.
Unfortunately recent research conducted by Sane Australia  revealed that 95% of respondents surveyed believed that employers and managers need more education about mental illness and further training about how to manage the effects of mental illness in the workplace.
Many employers lack confidence in dealing with those who are experiencing issues with their mental health however the more information that is available and the more dialogue there is about mental health issues the better Australian workplaces will become for all workers.
Why should employers develop mental health strategies for the workplace?
Creating a work environment that safe and healthy for all employees is a sound aspiration for employers for a number of reasons:
- It makes good business sense.
Recognising and promoting mental health benefits workplaces by reducing staff turnover and absenteeism. Staff who feel supported and nurtured are more likely to work productively and stay with an organisation for longer.
- Social benefits
Statistics show that around 45% of Australians aged between 16 and 85 will experience a mental illness at some point in their life, whilst one in five Australians will experience a mental illness in any given year . Mental health problems are common in our community and by supporting people with mental health issues in the workplace employers make for a richer and more diverse workplace and one that better understands the needs of a diverse range of customers. In turn those employees with mental health issues feel nurtured and supported, enabling them to approach working life with more confidence. The stability of work provides an important structure and routine in day to day life which has an important flow on effect in other aspects of life and contributes to feelings of social inclusion.
- Risk Mitigation
Employers also have a positive legal obligation under Occupational / work health and safety laws to provide a safe and healthy work environment for employees and that extends to those with a mental illness. By putting in place strategies to address the needs of those with a mental illness employers reduce the likelihood of a crisis in the workplace and also avoid the risk of discrimination or occupational health and safety claims.
Workers with a mental illness
For many employees living with a mental illness the prospect of showing up to work each day can be daunting for a number of reasons. It may be that their condition itself is destabilizing and impacts their self confidence. They may be struggling to juggle the competing demands of work and home. Many employees also fear how they will be perceived in the workplace – they may fear there may be some stigma attached to their illness, or co workers may consider they are just trying to avoid work. Some will be uncertain whether to even disclose their condition as they may be unsure what support their employer will provide and whether the disclosure will affect their career prospects.
It is not only the social aspect of work which can be challenging for employees but the systems in place in the work environment that dictate workload, the pace of work, and the schedule. The work itself may be demanding, require rapid decision making or require constant communications or interactions with other employees which the employee may feel unable to manage.
What measures can an Organisation put in place to support its employees’ mental health?
Employers should ensure that ALL their employees are well informed about mental illness in the workplace by making available literature on the subject or through programs such as those run through Beyond Blue, Sane Australia’s Mindful employer program or the Mental Health First Aid Course run by Australian Red Cross.
These courses can improve mental health literacy and assist employees in learning how to recognize the signs and symptoms in someone with a mental health issue. They also provide constructive advice on how to respond to mental health crises, and offer strategies to engage and support the person. By creating an ongoing dialogue about mental health employees become more familiar with the issue and it is less likely to be perceived as threatening or other common misunderstandings.
Addressing workplace risks to your employees’ mental health The importance of providing a work environment that is supportive of employees’ mental health cannot be underestimated – both for the ongoing wellbeing of all employees and for those returning to work after an episode of mental illness. Employers should be aware of the factors that can create a risk to mental health.
On its website , Comcare proposes employers address what it describes as the “psychosocial” risks in the workplace. These are those aspects of work design organisation and management of work and its social and environmental context that can cause psychological, social or physical harm.
The U.K Health and Safety Executive  has identified six key aspects of work that if not properly and effectively managed can lead to stress and loss of productivity.
- The demands that are placed on employees
This includes things such as the volume of work, the way in which the work is performed and the environment. Employers need to ensure they are providing employees with work they are capable of completing and provide systems for employees to report difficulties.
Employees need to have a say in how they do their work.
Employees require the support of their employer in completing their job be it through resources such as training, or the provision of clear systems, policies and procedures.
Employers need to provide a workplace that promotes and supports positive healthy relationships between employees and offers policies and processes for dealing with conflict in the workplace.
It is important that employees understand their role and that the boundaries between roles are clearly defined.
- Change management
How an organisation manages change in the workplace is significant. Employers need to engage employees in the process and to provide them with access to support through the change process.
For those employees returning to work after an episode of mental illness there may be a need for the employer to make reasonable adjustments to the employees work arrangements to support them in their return to work. It is important to remember that individual employees will have their own special requirements and need different types of support – some may manage a mental illness in the workplace without it affecting their work, others may require temporary assistance and some ongoing support.
Employees have legal responsibilities under occupational / work health and safety laws and the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 and may need to consult with the relevant authority.
Organisations such as Beyond Blue and AHRC’s “Workers with Mental Illness: a Practical Guide for Managers” provide helpful resources in assisting employers through this process and focus on the importance of planning the return to work.
Some examples of reasonable adjustments might include:
- Making changes to the employee’s work hours, offering flexibility to attend to medical appointments and to balance home and work life.
- Helping the employer to manage workloads by documenting tasks clearly, providing reminders, and making checklists.
- Purchasing or modifying equipment.
- Moving the employee to a quieter work space.
There is an abundance of information and resources available to workplaces to assist them in learning about this significant issue. Employers who take steps to understand the importance of supporting good mental health in the workplace will reap the rewards of a happier and more productive workplace.
- Australian Human Rights Commission 2010 Workers with Mental Illness:
A Practical Guide for Managers
- Supporting the return to work of employers with depression or anxiety
- Mindful employers program
- Anxiety Recovery Centre Victoria
- Anxiety Disorders Association of Vic Inc.
- Clinical research Unit for Anxiety and Depression – a joint facility of UNSW and St Vincent’s
 Beyond Blue website
 AS above
 Australian Bureau of Statistics National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing: Summary of results 2007
 www.comcare.gov.au  www.hse.gov.uk