Mental health—How to support an employee when they experience symptoms of mental illness

How will I know if someone is becoming unwell?

In the workplace, mental illness may be affecting someone if their work performance is sliding and they are experiencing problems in relating to other staff. Research says that a change in work performance is one of the earliest warning signs of mental illness. It is also known that the sooner a person’s mental illness is treated the more able they will be to manage its impact on their life. The faster the onset of an individual period of episodic mental illness is recognised, the more likely that its impact will be minimised.

Therefore, it is important to discuss with an employee, any negative changes you have noticed that are about work performance or how they are relating to others, as soon as possible.

When might I talk about it with them?

Hold regular one-on-one ‘catch-up’ sessions with all staff to discuss their work role and surrounding issues. Always enquire about workplace stress and physical and mental wellbeing, but bear in mind your obligations to maintain the person's rights to privacy. More information about rights to privacy can be found on the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner website (please see Related Links on this page).

How do I raise my concerns?

  • Begin the conversation by asking the employee about their perceptions of their work performance and how they are relating with other staff.
  • Show non-judgmental understanding of their initial response, they are not likely to be open to change if they feel judged by you.
  • Ask if they are aware of changes to their work performance and in response, share your concerns about their performance
  • If the employee agrees with your observations then ask if they are aware of anything that might be affecting their work performance and or relationships. This may give them the opportunity to discuss workplace stress, or disclose mental illness.
  • If they tell you that they have a mental illness, inform them about possible accommodations and flexible work practices that can relieve stress and enable recovery from periods of mental illness. JobAccess Advisors can provide information about these.
  • Inform the employee that it is in their best interest to seek medical treatment for an illness that is affecting their work as strategies can be put in place to prevent issues with their work performance and to ensure work health and safety is upheld. For more information about work health and safety refer to your State’s Work Cover authority.
  • Come to an agreement about workplace accommodations that can support their recovery and relieve stress.
  • If the employee needs help managing their daily activities and building long-term relationships, it may be helpful to provide information about community programs such as the Personal Helpers and Mentors service (please see Related Links on this page).
  • Assure them the conversation will remain confidential, unless they prefer to inform others.
  • Discuss ways to explain to other staff why they are working in a different way (accommodations) in a manner that doesn’t betray the person’s privacy and confidence.

Supporting the Employee in the Workplace

Effective management systems provide excellent support for people who have any sort of health issue, including mental illness. It is good practice for line managers to spend one-on-one time with all staff on a regular basis. This time can be used to discuss work performance and to enquire about their wellbeing. People who are unwell will feel more supported to be open about their illness.

Many people who have a mental illness will choose not to tell their employer or co-workers about their illness. The reason may be that they fear being stigmatised, or they may not see a need to tell others.

If an employee does disclose that they have a mental illness, discuss whether it is likely to effect their work performance and if support can help.

If the employee does experience symptoms which affect their performance or workplace relationships, discuss possible short-term accommodations that might alleviate stress and support recovery. Effective accommodations include changes in schedules, job tasks or certain activities that could increase stress. Another accommodation may be working from home, if this is an option. Many people with mental illness may not need accommodations of any kind.

How else can support be provided?

  • Encourage appropriate use of sick leave entitlements.
  • Encourage an employee with a mental illness to seek professional assistance to address the mental health issue.
  • Provide general information in the workplace about the incidence and nature of mental illness, and encourage a supportive and aware environment for everyone.
  • Become aware of, and provide appropriate work/life balance initiatives, workplace adjustments and flexible work practices, such as flexible working hours and rostered days off. Job sharing is a great option for people who find full-time work a strain on their health, and workplaces can benefit from having two people covering the same role.
  • Ensure that the workplace offers supportive avenues for people who have a mental illness or any other disability, through links to employment support agencies.

The JobAccess Advisers can assist you with free, confidential information about workplace adjustments and accommodations for people with mental illness. Call them on 1800 464 800.

If an employee discloses their mental illness, the Privacy Act 1988 requires you to keep this information confidential. Principle Eleven of the Privacy Act 1988 also requires that you must get written consent from the individual before you can share information about their illness with others.

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