Trade union representatives

Because of their commitment to equity, solidarity and social justice, trade unions are in a unique position to promote equal opportunities for and equal treatment of disabled workers. As a trade union representative, you may play an important role in working to ensure that your workplace is a supportive environment for those with mental health problems and that employers offer reasonable adjustment to those returning to work after mental illness.

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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*:

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:

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:

Managing Absence

When to take sick leave for mental health problems

Deciding whether to remain at work after a diagnosis of depression or anxiety can be a difficult decision. In many cases, remaining at work can play a very important role in recovery by providing daily structure and routine, contributing to a sense of meaning and purpose, facilitating social support and maintaining financial security. The support given by supervisors and the organisation plays a key role in this.

Managing Return to Work

Overcoming barriers to return to work

The great majority of people who experience an episode of mental illness recover and have productive working lives. In some cases, such an episode can act as a trigger for a career or lifestyle change that benefits the person in the long term.

Employee responsibilities around return to work

Successful return to work involves a partnership between employers and employees. Your employer is likely to be trying to strike the right balance between supporting you and making sure the work gets done.

As an employee, your active participation in your return-to-work program will be critical to its success. Good communication with those involved in coordinating return to work is essential.

The return-to-work plan

A return-to-work plan is essential for ensuring a successful return to work. Ideally, a return-to-work plan for someone coming back after an episode of mental illness should address the interpersonal environment in a way similar to plans for return to work after physical injury that address the physical environment. This may mean making reasonable adjustments for particularly stressful tasks or interactions with colleagues or clients.

Reasonable adjustments

The person coordinating return to work should organise to make reasonable adjustments that remove any barriers that prevent an employee from fulfilling their role to the best of their ability. This involves identifying suitable duties for the person returning to work.

When making reasonable adjustments, do:

Identifying suitable duties

Involving employees in any decisions about such duties is critical to the success of return to work. While everyone's case is an individual one, you may want to use the following process to help identify suitable duties.

Employers' return-to-work obligations

There are a number of different laws that impact on the management of employees returning to work after mental illness. While these vary between states and territories, here is a brief summary:

Policy and procedures around return to work

As part of a broader health and wellbeing policy, your organisation should have a specific policy around return to work for employees with a mental health problem. This return-to-work policy should be formalised and written in plain language, to ensure that it is clear who is responsible for carrying out any actions or procedures.