Corporate Responsibility regarding Mental Health Issues: It’s Time to Foster a Positive Workplace

Why is there a stigma attached to someone suffering from mental health issues, particularly in the workplace? The statistics for mental illness show that it is not as uncommon as may be first thought. In 2007, the Australian Bureau of Statistics National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing found that around 45% of Australians between 16 and 85 years of age will experience a mental illness at some point in their lives, while one in five adults will experience a mental illness in any given year.

These Australians are men, women, mothers, fathers, managers, employers and employees.

Mental health covers not just acute or psychiatric conditions, but includes more common issues such as stress, anxiety, low mood and fatigue. So it is not a far stretch of the imagination to realise that people with mental health problems can and do work, and mental health issues will always be present in the workplace. It’s time to put the stigma aside. Recognising and promoting mental health is an essential part of creating a safe and healthy workplace.

Some people may have a pre-disposition to develop mental illness due to family history. However, given that mental illness is a general term referring to a wide group of conditions, mental health can affect anyone regardless of their social background, age, or ethnic origin.

Certain work practices can increase the risk of individuals developing mental health issues or aggravating existing ones. So it is important as an employer, officer, manager, and employee to promote a safe and healthy workplace through education around mental illness, communication about it, and directly addressing it where present.

The law regarding mental health issues in the workplace

There are three areas where the law deals with corporate responsibility regarding mental health. They are:

  • Occupational, health and safety legislation: In NSW, we have the Work, Health and Safety Act 2011. A primary duty of care for any person conducting a business is to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of workers while at work or undertaking work for a business (s19 of theWork Health and Safety Act 2011). A worker must also take reasonable care for their health and safety (s28).
  • Discrimination legislation: The Commonwealth Fair Work Act 2009 provides that it is unlawful to discriminate against someone in the workplace (s351). This includes an employer taking adverse action against a worker because of their mental health status. An adverse action can include altering the position of an employee to that person’s prejudice (s352).
  • Privacy legislation: Disclosure of a mental health matters to an employer is protected by confidentiality and privacy under there various legislation including thePrivacy Act 1988, theMental Health Act 2007 and the Fair Work Act 2009.

When all this law is considered together, basically it means that employers and employees have responsibilities to ensure a safe workplace, including issues around mental illness.

What can employers do?

In essence, best practice for mental wellbeing in the workplace can be addressed by implementing three broad principles:

1. Recognition: effective communication between managerial staff and employees is easily the most useful tool for being able to recognise when a staff member is suffering from a mental health matter. Also important is recognising the early warning signs of mental health problems. These include poor work performance, erratic behaviour, emotional responses, unplanned absences, difficulty with memory etc. Being aware of the early warning signs and privately communicating with a member of staff your concerns about those early warning signs can encourage disclosure of the health matter.

2. Support: whether or not a worker has disclosed the fact of a mental health issue, as an employer you have a responsibility to ensure the health of your worker. If early warning signs of a mental health issue are recognised, your corporate responsibility may be met by making reasonable adjustments to the employee’s conditions, which will enable a worker to perform their duties more effectively in the workplace. That is, responding to the particular needs or issues of a worker. This could include flexible work arrangements such as flexible hours or rostered days off, changing an aspect of the job or the work area, or providing assistance with managing equipment.

Equally important is implementing effective policies and procedures that outline a commitment to providing a healthy workplace. This can include policies against workplace bullying, harassment, and discrimination. Training could be provided to workers about these matters and how to prevent them. Confidential consultations could be encouraged as a matter of policy and procedure.

By setting up a policy that provides a commitment to mental health matters and implementing procedures that attempts to address them, your corporate responsibilities will be met.

Persons running a company can play a key role in defining the culture of the workplace through the behaviours they model, as well as the behaviour they expect from their employees. Clear expectations and respectful behaviour builds positive workplaces.

3. Rehabilitation: communicating with an employee about ways in which their needs could be met should be done. You need to encourage them to stay at work or return to work, and implementing reasonable adjustments can assist in their rehabilitation.

What can employees do?

Employees equally have a duty to ensure their health in the workplace and the health of their work colleagues. Fostering respectful behaviour towards those you work with can encourage a positive workplace. The principles discussed above can also equally be applied to what employees can do.

Recognising early warnings signs of mental health difficulties, communicating with your work colleagues about it, and ultimately removing the stigma associated with it can promote a healthy workplace.

Future of mental health

The recent development of biomarkers in diagnosing mental illness can address one of the three principles discussed above: recognition. Put simply, biomarkers can identify the presence of illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, and even clinical depression.

By recognising the presence of a mental health illness, employers and employees can encourage communication of it, can provide support for it, and can make reasonable adjustments at work to promote and encourage work health safety.

Ultimately, our words can hurt in the workplace but our actions can repair. By implementing a positive attitude to communication and support of workers with mental health issues, the stigma that is so wrongly attached to mental health can be removed.

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