Managing mental health conditions at work

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Mental health conditions affect one in five Australians in any given year. Almost half the population will experience a mental health condition at some point in their life.

You might notice changes in the behaviour or attitude of someone at work. This may temporarily impact on their productivity or ability to meet agreed performance targets – as well as on their general wellbeing.

Before you approach a colleague or employee about their mental health, you need to plan your discussion. Thinking about it ahead of time can guide you in what to say. A good starting point is to tell your colleague your concern and be specific about the workplace issues you have noticed. RU OK is a website that has practical hints and tips on how to do this in a supportive manner.

Remember to respond to what your colleague or employee tells you. There may be many reasons for a change in behaviour which is not related to mental health conditions. Circumstances such as financial strain, relationship breakdown or physical illness can affect performance and presentation.

Discussing the behaviour or concern allows for the development of a support plan for the workplace. Plans may include actions to help manage symptoms and identify key contact points for support services.

What to do if an employee or colleague discloses a mental health condition?

Mental health conditions are common and most are manageable. Most people will be able to work effectively without support and adjustments most of the time. Mental health conditions can impact different people in different ways - don’t assume you know the impact their diagnosis might be having on their work or life. Ask how the condition affects them.

Your colleague may be suggesting you increase workplace awareness, or to help them put a plan in place. Offer to discuss the issues and be open to learning.

Be aware that the impact of mental health conditions may fluctuate, so the supports and adjustments may need to be flexible and reviewed regularly.

If current symptoms are impacting a person’s ability to do their job, think about how work barriers could be overcome. Some strategies to help include:

  • having a clear role description and key performance indicators available to everyone and use these to identify and address issues that may arise
  • discuss together where the barriers are and what the solutions may be either remove them or make them easier to manage
  • in some circumstances, an increase in the structure and routine of the role may help
  • Employment Assistance Programs (EAPs) may assist in providing support to your employee and in developing solutions

Workplace adjustments and solutions and employers

  • employers may be able to provide a range of workplace adjustments (for mental health conditions or disability) at little or no cost
  • think about what sort of support and adjustments a person may need to continue to work productively in the role
  • think laterally when developing strategies – just because something has always been done a certain way, doesn’t make it the best way. Circumstances and role requirements change. By reviewing periodically, you may just come up with better processes for everyone. A few ideas to look at are;
    • flexible work hours
    • nominating a mentor
    • consulting your EAP, if you have one, as they provide access to confidential, short-term counselling aimed at assisting with work or personal issues.

Supporting a mentally healthy workplace

Of course, many mental health conditions will occur regardless of the environment, but some are made worse by stress and an inability to cope with it. Good work practices and policies can support your employees more than you may know.

It is always good practice to, ahead of time; identify workplace processes, actions or incidents, which may contribute to high stress levels for your employees. Act to eliminate or minimise these risks and create a supportive environment and culture.

Workplace adjustments and solutions for employees

Below are some suggestions for the individual to assist with maintaining optimum mental health:

  • focus on maintaining a healthy lifestyle including getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet and getting regular exercise
  • facilitate taking regular work breaks
  • schedule regular performance feedback with your supervisor
  • develop stress reduction techniques
  • ensure that complex tasks are completed at peak concentration periods
  • identify someone to talk to: a work colleague, friend, family member or a counsellor
  • identify what triggers stress and try and calm down before facing the trigger
  • plan activities each day that you will look forward to
  • set realistic goals and sticking to a routine
  • plan and organise work tasks, so as to not over commit
  • try to have a positive attitude
  • avoid worrying about the little things
  • see your GP and discuss a mental health care plan with them
  • consider referral to a mental health specialist who has professional training and experience in working with people who have mental health conditions, problems with stress at work or behavioural issues.

Support Services

If a person needs extra support, seeking the assistance of a mental health specialist or a professional counsellor may help. Some workplaces also have an Employee Assistance Program or counsellor which are useful sources of support.

Specialist employment agencies that provide coaching and support on the job for people with a disability may also be able to assist with the development of workplace solutions. Find a provider near you.

The Employment Assistance Fund can also assist with funding for Mental Health Awareness Training in the workplace as well as funding for one to one support with a mental health specialist to assist with working on a work-based mental health plan.

The Heads up website has been established as part of a national approach by business, community and government to encourage Australian workplaces to become mentally healthy for the benefit of the whole community and businesses, big and small. The Website provides a range of resources to help support mental health in the workplace.

Related Links

Australian Psychological Society
Beyondblue
Black Dog Institute
Head to Health
Mental Health First Aid Australia
Sane Australia

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