Mental Health in the Workplace

What are mental health problems?

There are different ways of defining the term mental health. Some definitions emphasise positive psychological well-being whereas others see it as the absence of mental health problems.

For example, the World Health Organization has defined mental health as: “… a state of well-being in which the individual realises his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”

Early warning signs of mental health problems at work

Watch this short film about recognising mental health problems in your employees:

Early warning signs that may show up at work in someone developing a mental health problem include*:

What to do when an employee discloses a mental health problem

For many employees, the decision about whether to disclose a mental health problem at work is a difficult one to make. As a supervisor, responding with empathy, understanding and a lack of judgement can play a key role in helping the person to stay at work or return to work successfully if they do take time off.

Early intervention for mental health problems

There is a wide range of interventions for treating mental health problems.

Early intervention programs target people with mental health problems and those who are just developing them. They aim to prevent problems from becoming more serious and reduce the likelihood of secondary effects such as loss of employment, school drop-out, relationship break-up and drug and alcohol problems.

Fostering a supportive work environment

Watch this short film about supporting employees with mental health problems:

Mental health training

Mental health training is key to building capacity and developing skills in managing those with mental health problems. Mental health training can help to:

Confidentiality and privacy

Once an employee has disclosed their mental health problem, it is vital that you discuss and agree with them exactly who else, if anyone, might need to know, and what information they need to be provided with.

You should also make the employee aware that anything you discuss with them about their mental health problem will be kept confidential, unless there is an immediate danger to the person or to others in withholding that information.

What staff need to know

Increased awareness and skills training at the workplace, can help to reduce the severity, duration, and cost of mental health problems.The organisation should have procedures for making the all employees aware of the following:

Managing underperformance and mental health problems

In some cases, managing mental health problems can be complicated by underperformance issues. These situations are often very difficult for supervisors and employees, particularly if an employee takes time off work with stress or another mental health problem while they are being disciplined or having their performance managed.

Job stress and mental health problems

Stress is a normal part of daily life and can be positive or negative. It is a natural physical and mental response that is designed to help us cope effectively with challenging situations. It can be associated with work, family or personal relationships and usually means that something is happening that's causing worry and affecting how we are thinking and feeling. Signs of stress in the workplace can occur due to:

The value of work for health and recovery

A person does not have to be 100% well to return to work. Working has been shown to have a therapeutic affect upon mental illness, and can contribute to recovery.

In the great majority of cases, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.

The benefits include:

Dealing with a distressed employee

The skills required for managing an employee with a mental health problem are the skills of good people management. While some knowledge about mental health problems and their signs and symptoms is valuable, you definitely don't need to be an expert.

As with many things, prevention and early intervention can help avoid situations in which employees become distressed. As part of the return-to-work process, do:

Getting help for anxiety and depression

People with anxiety and depression often seek initial help from family and friends, who are an important source of support.

There are several different types of health professional who can provide help for anxiety and depression. They have different areas of expertise but General Practitioners (GPs) are the best starting point for someone seeking professional help.

General Practitioners

A good GP can provide the following:

Dealing with a mental health crisis at work

Mental health crises include:

  • suicidal behaviour or intention
  • panic attacks/extreme anxiety
  • psychotic episodes (loss of sense of reality, hallucinations, hearing voices)
  • other behaviour that seems out of control or irrational and that is likely to endanger yourself or others.

In a crisis, you should seek help, especially if you feel concerned about your safety or the safety of others in the workplace. The service you call first will depend on the type of crisis or emergency situation and when it occurs.

Psychological injury

Psychological injury is the main form of injury associated with work-related stress. The laws covering psychological vary according to which state you are in or whether you are an Australian government employee. Psychological injury claims are sometimes known as 'stress claims'.

Each jurisdiction has slightly different definitions of an injury and degree to which employment contributes to the injury for a claim to be accepted. For example, according to the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation (SRC) Act (which covers government employees), injury means: