Learn more about mental health in the workplace
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What is the impact on the team?
When a staff member experiences a mental health concern, it can affect the whole team.
- Clearly communicate with employees that they do not judge them and don’t think that they are just “slacking off” or not pulling their weight
- May need to communicate to key staff what is going on without providing specific details of an employee’s condition. Check with the employee first what they are okay with you sharing
- Protect employees right to privacy and confidentiality
- Identify and address any misconceptions team members may have about mental health
- Communicate information to the team regularly, giving them updates about how the situation is being managed
- Manage the impact of any absences on the team and distribute the workload appropriately
- Consider swapping tasks within the team to avoid other colleagues taking on an excessive workload
- Recognize when conflicts, gossip and bullying occur and be proactive in dealing with the situation. Don’t wait for things to boil over and resentment or anger to set in
Common barriers to remaining at or returning to work include:
- Fear that colleagues may find out about diagnosis and possible negative reactions
- Loss of connection with work and co-workers
- Lack of support from employers and managers – this can be perceived or actual
- Uncertainty about the level or type of support available
- Stigma associated with mental health conditions
- Concerns that work-related contributors to stress, anxiety and depression have not been addressed
Employer rights and responsibilities
- It is illegal for an employer to discriminate against someone on the grounds of disability – including a mental health condition.
Employer responsibilities include:
- To determine whether the person can perform the inherent requirements of the job
- To identify if any reasonable adjustments may be needed – either in selection or recruitment process or in work environment and role
- To establish facts for entitlements such as sick leave, superannuation, workers compensation or other insurance
- Overall test is whether your enquiries are for a legitimate purpose e.g. you can ask an employee about medication if their job involves operating heavy machinery
- If you do ask for information you must maintain confidentiality and protect employees right to privacy – this means protecting the information against improper access and disclosure
Practical strategies to address barriers:
Having the support of a manager or supervisor is the most crucial factor. You can demonstrate this by:
- Providing mental health awareness training
- Speaking openly about mental health conditions in the workplace and encouraging others to do the same
- Communicating your commitment to equal opportunity and privacy and develop policies where required
- Promoting a positive working environment by minimizing workplace risks to mental health, such as job stress
- Draw on guidance from specialists or the treating health professionals of employees
How to manage risks:
Common risks to mental health in the workplace include job stress, bullying, harassment and workplace trauma. These should be actively managed by eliminating or minimising the risks as far as is reasonable. This may include considering the following:
- The likelihood of the risk occurring
- The degree of harm that might result from the risk
- What is known about the risk and ways of eliminating or minimizing risk
- The availability and suitability of ways to eliminate or minimize risk
- As far as is reasonable and possible, discuss these plans with the employee concerned so that they feel they are part of the decisions being made and are not further losing control.” For example, if an employee is unable to drive a company vehicle discuss with them alternative and more appropriate duties and responsibilities which they may be able to take on during this time
An example of risk assessment reduction may include if an employee needs to take medication which may impair their concentration and they are responsible for driving a company vehicle. The risk to the employee, the public and the company is potentially quite high. Assessing this risk may include obtaining permission from the employee to discuss the medication and its impact with their treating health professional. The health professional may then recommend the employee take the medication at a time when it is least likely to impact their performance. Alternatively, if this is not possible, you may be able to discuss with the employee alternative duties which they may perform in the office which will not require operating a vehicle or machinery.
Making reasonable adjustments:
For many workers experiencing a mental health condition, small changes to the working environment will be enough to ensure they have equal opportunity to continue in their job. Reasonable adjustments can include:
- Adjustments to work methods or arrangements, including hours of work and use of leave entitlements
- Adjustments to the workplace or work related premises, equipment or facilities
- Adjustments to work related rules or modifications to enable a person to comply with the rules as they exist
The individual situation will dictate what kind of adjustments are reasonable. In most cases the employee will be able to identify what changes are required. If the suggested adjustments would require unreasonable hardship there is no obligation to implement them.
How to develop a plan
When an employee has a mental health concern you may need to develop a plan to help them stay or return to work. This requires clarity of roles, responsibilities and strategies to support their recovery. Some basic steps include:
- How are they feeling about work
- What might prevent them from remaining at or returning to work
- What adjustments or changes would support their recovery
- What sorts of strategies would help them cope woth issues at work
- If they have had some time off, when might they be ready to return to work
- Is it OK to speak to the employees health professionals about their recovery and readiness for work? Discuss how much information the employee would be comfortable with you sharing with their colleagues so that they can support the employee upon their return”
- Who is responsible for what?
- What additional support will be available?
- How will the plan be implemented, monitored and reviewed?
- What is the time period – one month, six months or longer?
- When will the plan be reviewed?
- How will you make changes together?
- Will you continue to check in with the employee after the defined time period? How will these check ins happen?
How to support a colleague
- Don’t ignore what has happened and don’t avoid or ignore the affected employee.
- Key staff who are closer with the employee should meet with the manager to discuss how they may best support their friend and colleague.
- Upon an employee’s return from leave, staff should greet them, make eye contact and be genuine in welcoming their return.
- Simple statements such as “We’ve missed you and are glad to see you back” or “I am not quite sure what to say but am here to listen if you would like to talk” are perfectly fine.
- Do your best not to offer platitudes such as “Every cloud has a silver lining” etc as this can feel dismissive to the affected person and is often more about our own discomfort than caring for another.
What to do and what not to do
- Acknowledge the situation with the employee and talk openly and respectfully with them about what is going on
- Ask them if there is anything you can do to assist them
- Check in regularly to see how they are, especially if they are on leave, a friendly phone call to see how they are helps them to feel that they matter and are still part of a team
- Check what the employee would like you to tell their colleagues (if anything)
- Encourage the employees closer work colleagues and friends to make contact and be as supportive as possible.
- Discuss with staff how best they may support the employee. Run through examples of what is helpful and what may be less helpful
- Agree with staff to acknowledge the employees return and struggles in a supportive and appropriate way. Encourage staff to not pretend that everything is alright
- Pretend that nothing happened
- Avoid the employee concerned
- Criticise the employee for needing to take time off or alter their duties
- Replace the employee and plan to exit them from the company
- Gossip with employees or others about the employee
- Spread rumours
- Tell others what the employee has told you in confidence and not given permission to share
How to plan the conversation
Planning the conversation:
When you’re preparing to approach someone, it can be helpful to:
- Find out what help is available within your workplace. If you work in a larger organisation, does it have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP)?
- Consider who should be having the conversation. Are you the best person or would another workmate or someone from HR be more suitable?
- Think about the most appropriate time and place. Find somewhere private where the person will feel comfortable.
What to say?
Whether you’re a manager concerned about someone in your team or speaking to another colleague, the following tips will help you have the conversation. Don’t worry if you don’t quite know what to say. Just by being supportive and listening, you’re helping to make a difference.
How to start
- There's no right way of expressing things – the main thing is to be thoughtful and genuine.
- You don’t need to have all the answers – it’s about the conversation and the support you offer by talking.
- Say what feels comfortable for you.
- If what you say doesn’t sound quite right, stop and try again. It doesn’t have to be the end of the conversation.
- Remember that this is their story, so don’t try to guess how it plays out. Instead, listen and ask questions.
- Be aware of your body language. To show you’re listening, try to maintain eye contact and sit in a relaxed position.
- Repeat back your understanding of what they've said and make sure it's accurate.
Think about the best way to respond. You can’t fix things, but you can help them along the way. You might:
- decide that today you're just there to listen and offer support
- talk about it again another time
- keep checking in with them
- reassure them that you'll respect their privacy
- think about what they need now and ask what you can do to help.
What to do next
- Discuss options for further support.
- Finish the conversation with a plan/next steps.
- Appreciate that they opened up and shared their story with you.
Look after yourself
- If the conversation has worried you, think about how you can relax or debrief.
- Talk to someone for support and/or advice but remember to respect the person's privacy
- If they don't want to speak about it, respect their choice, but leave the door open for further dialogue.
- You may need to have a few tries to open a conversation.
- Just by showing support and offering to talk, you can make a difference. The person might take action at a later stage or continue the conversation with others
Supporting a colleague / worker
There are plenty of positive things you can do if someone you work with is going through a tough time.
What to do
- have a chat about how they’re feeling
- suggest they might see their doctor
- offer to help them make an appointment and find other information, such as what they need to bring with them to the appointment, where it is and how to get there. Even though these details may seem small to you, someone with mental health difficulties may be exhausted and overwhelmed and struggle with the details around this kind of activity
- ask them how their appointment went
- spend time talking about their experiences
- talk openly about depression and anxiety at work
- refer them to resources at work, such as an Employee Assistance Program (EAP)
- encourage them to exercise, eat well and get involved in social activities.
What not to do
- pressure them to snap out of it, get their act together or cheer up
- stay away from them or giving them too much space
- tell them they just need to stay busy or get out more
- assume the problem will just go away on its own.
- offer platitudes such as “it was meant to be” or “everything passes”
Where to find support for depression and anxiety
Supporting Someone at Risk of Suicide
If you’re concerned about someone at work:
- Start by asking if they’re okay
- Offer to go with them to speak to a manager
- Offer to help them call a health professional to make an appointment
For someone returning to work after a suicide attempt
Someone returning to work after a suicide attempt is likely to feel isolated and alone. Any genuine care and concern that you can offer could make a real difference, helping them feel connected and valued.
People who have attempted suicide may or may not want to talk to their colleagues about what has happened straight away, if at all. If not, it is important to respect their choice, but you can still make it clear you're there for them if they do want to talk about it.
Things to remember
- Listen without judging. It's likely they're trying to deal with intense feelings ranging from anger, regret, sadness, fear and guilt. While it may be hard to understand, it's important to accept what they are saying.
- You don’t need to ask probing questions about what has happened, or why. They'll tell you when and if they're ready. If it's not something that you're comfortable discussing, be honest with them about it.
- Don’t avoid them because you feel uncomfortable – this can reinforce the sense of stigma. Even letting the person know that you don’t know what to say or how to say it but that you are glad they’re back and are there if they want to talk or just go for coffee can be a big help.
- Remember it's not just what you say, but how you say it. People notice your body language. Keep your arms unfolded, make eye contact, face your body towards the person you are talking to.
- If you don’t know how to respond to something, be honest and say so.
- Recognise that suicide is a complex coping response to what feels like an intolerable situation.
- Letting them know you care is a good start, and that you're there if they need you: "I'm so glad you're OK. You don’t have to say anything, but I’m here when you are ready to talk and I want to support you to get through this”.
- Be aware of cultural differences. This can affect how people respond to suicide, as well as how they feel about sharing information and seeking help.
Available support pathways
If you’re worried about a colleague, there's a range of resources you can refer them to.
Useful contacts include:
- beyondblue’s Support Service – 1300 22 4636 – for information and advice on depression, anxiety and related conditions, available treatments and where to get help. The information line is not a counselling or crisis line.
- beyondblue resources, including fact sheets, booklets, flyers and DVDs. These resources can be ordered online or over the phone
- beyondblue website, for information on depression, anxiety and suicide prevention, available treatments and where to get help
- Youthbeyondblue, for information designed for young people on depression, anxiety and how to help a friend
- SANE Australia’s website/ and helpline – 1800 18 SANE (7623) – provides information about symptoms, treatments, medications, where to go for support and help for carers.
- If you work in a larger organisation, your workplace’s human resources managers and internal support services, such as an Employee Assistance Program (EAP)
- Man Therapy, for tools to help men take action for depression and anxiety
An excellent resource for ways to phrase things in these conversations is:
Talking to someone you are worried about on Beyondblue.
An excellent resource for identifying when someone may be struggling and understanding common mental health issues is:
How To Ask Staff "R U OK?": A Practical Guide for the Workplace booklet.
Taking Care of Yourself at Work: Anxiety and Depression.
Good resources for strategies on how to manage an employee at work
Supporting Someone At Work flyer.
Great resource for case examples of mental illness in workplace
2010 Workers with Mental Illness: a Practical Guide for Managers from the Australian Human Rights Commission.
Having a conversation: discussing mental health in the workplace interactive activity from Beyondblue.
Where To From Here?
Things to do after an initial talk
Help Amy to make contact with the appropriate person in HR
Suggest Amy makes an appointment with her GP to discuss how she has been feeling.
Reassure Amy of her privacy – you won’t tell anyone specific details unless she wants you to.
Don’t pretend this never happened – respect her privacy but continue to demonstrate that you are aware of the situation and that you care.
Check in with Amy regularly – agree to how she would feel most comfortable doing this.
Provide Amy with resources for support such as the Beyond Blue website.
Ask Amy how her GP appointment went.
- Remember to show you are listening with your body too:
- Make eye contact.
- Turn your body to face the person.
- Avoid distractions like mobile phones and emails while talking.
- Accept whatever they say.
- Check back with the person that you have understood them correctly.
- Don’t probe unnecessarily.