My employee has a mental health issue – what do I do?

Earlier this month The West Australian reported “the Federal Government has boosted youth mental health funding by $110 million to extend the life of a series of programs across the country.” At a time when our governments are under increased financial scrutiny, why are they choosing to increase spending on mental health and why should you, as an employer, be taking note?

As an employer you have a duty of care to protect the health and wellbeing of your workers and despite the fact that four million Australians suffer from a mental illness every year, a Minster Ellison survey found that 60% of organisations do not have policies or procedures in place to identify key risk factors and 74% do not have a formal policy or procedure for managing mental health issues in their workplace. When we consider that 56% of survey particifpants reported a year-to-year increase in the number of cases involving mental health, the lack of active workplace strategies indicate that appropriate management of these issues is an area many businesses struggle with.

Heather Warner Principal of Perth based HR consultancy WCA Solutions commented: “Whilst it is relatively straightforward to provide protocols and appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) to ensure the physical safety of your workers, many employers are finding it much harder it to ensure the mental health and well-being of their workers.”

Here we provide the four key questions you need to ask, and answer, to better promote positive mental health practices in your business.

1.     How can I support my staff and mitigate against mental health issues?

  • Creating a framework for internal mechanisms to identify and discuss mental health concerns is a good pre-emptive strategy. It supports positive discussion, and encourages people to raise concerns before they escalate. This could involve measures such as promoting flexible work practices, and improved screening at the recruitment stage with a view to ensuring alignment of role requirements with candidate capability.
  • Identifying factors in the workplace which may contribute to mental health issues is also recommended. Some high risk aspects to be mindful of are, increased stress and/or fatigue, which was identified as the biggest risk factor by 66% of participants, followed by workplace change or job security at 31%.  So, ensuring you have appropriate staffing levels in place as well as introducing necessary workplace change with measured and sound change management practices will mitigate these risks.

2.     Are my managers capable of dealing with a mental health issue in the workplace?:

  • Ensuring that your mangers are properly trained in how to deal with employee issues can promote an environment where staff feel more comfortable coming forward. More importantly the business will benefit from improved interactions with staff in general and where mental health is concerned.
  • Training modules, personal stories, and management strategies that may assist in this area have been developed by Beyond Blue and are available through Heads Up (

3.     What can I do when a staff member is experiencing mental health issues?

  • Upon discovering a staff member is dealing with a mental health issue, deciding what to do is often difficult and you may be unsure of the best course of action to assist and support that person while also ensuring that business objectives continue to be achieved.
  • Having a framework and procedures in place is important as it provides a guide on how to respond to mental health issues in the workplace, however each instance should be treated on a case-by-case basis, to ensure that staff experiencing these issues are treated as individuals, and that the best possible outcome is achieved. Heather Warner shared some personal insight…

“… a staff member was experiencing severe mental health issues,  providing more flexible work hours as well as access to some psychiatric assistance, eventuated in a beneficial solution for everyone. However, in some cases ultimately the employee may no longer be “fit” for the role and it may be more beneficial for the mental health of the employee to move to a different role or out of the business.”

4.     What are the benefits of improving my business’s mental health framework?

  • A PWC study found that mental health issues have a substantial economic impact on Australian workplaces, approximately $11 billion per year. This comprises $4.7 billion in absenteeism, $6.1 billion in presenteeism (reduced productivity when at work) and $146 million in compensation claims. (PWC, “Creating a mentally healthy workplace, return on investment analysis”, March 2014.)
  • A 2014 study carried out by Beyond Blue and PwC showed that for every dollar spent on successfully implementing an appropriate mental health action there is on average $2.30 in benefits in terms of reducing in absenteeism, increased productivity and reduction in workers compensation claims (Minster Ellison).

Whilst businesses need to remain profitable and efficient, most managers and business owners want to provide a supportive, flexible and enjoyable workplace for their staff.  Given the prevalence of mental health issues within workplaces and across the wider community and the associated costs, it clearly makes good business sense to develop appropriate awareness of mental health within your business and underpin this with sound policy and procedures, ensuring managers are adequately trained to have the necessary conversations and manage mental health situations when they arise.