Jeff* Local Government Employee, NSW

Jeff* was a shift worker in local government, working every weekend. In late 2009 he attempted suicide and took a leave of absence. During his absence, his manager maintained respectful contact, mostly through Jeff’s wife. Jeff was very clear that he didn’t want anyone to know about what had happened.

His employer was very careful about maintaining confidentiality, making sure that any documentation about his case was secure. When he was ready to return to work his manager took the initiative and suggested that he come back to work during normal business hours for a period of two weeks. His return to work was assisted by a lot of discussion with his GP and a comprehensive mental health plan. After the initial period, Jeff now works alternate weekends and is still at work for the same organisation.

*not his real name

Kylie* HR Officer

Kylie* is an HR officer working for a large retail chain. She was recruited 2 years ago from a similar organisation. While Kylie takes her work seriously, her moods are inconsistent and when she is feeling down she can be uncommunicative and aggressive. She often leaves work early and takes long periods of sick leave, without providing doctor’s certificates.

Kylie has disclosed to her supervisor that she had depression and an eating disorder, conditions which she did not mention at interview and which were not mentioned during reference checks.

She can be defensive and is often rude and aggressive. Her supervisor finds the situation very difficult. Wanting to take a proactive approach, she has engaged a rehabilitation provider to help manage Kylie’s situation.

Initially Kylie was reluctant to engage with the rehabilitation provider but eventually she agreed and has started to develop a relationship with the provider. Unfortunately, her behaviour at work continues to be inconsistent. Her work performance is adequate but she is rude to some employees (although not others) and continues to take a lot of sick days. Kylie is still reluctant to consistently engage in treatment.

Kylie’s supervisor has now decided to more strongly encourage Kylie to seek treatment. If this fails they are prepared to seek legal advice as to whether they can terminate her employment.

*not her real name

Key Learning Points

  • Take a proactive approach and manage problems as early as possible, including difficult behaviour. Kylie should not have been allowed to continue to take time off without doctor’s certificates.
  • If you are person managing an employee with a mental health problem, make sure you are able to access support when you need it. This may be from your organisation’s HR department, Employee Assistance Program (EAP) (if available) or from your private health practitioner.

Jim* Lawyer QLD

Jim* is a lawyer in a large law firm. Not long after he was recruited he started to become unwell, suffering from depression, anxiety and panic attacks, particularly when he was asked to work at locations other than the office. He had long periods off work and while he did some work from home, his performance was unsatisfactory. His supervisor and the HR manager were aware of the situation and as they felt unsure about how to handle it, they allowed Jim to continue in this working pattern.

When a new HR manager became involved in Jim’s case, the firm tried to engage a rehabilitation provider but Jim was unwilling to work with them, preferring direct communication with his employer. He did give the firm permission to talk to his treating doctor but she was reluctant to give the firm any information. Jim continued to have problems, taking time off then returning to work, only to take more time off.

Jim has not been at work for the last few months. He now has a new treating doctor who is prepared to give the firm more information and considers that Jim is unable to work and that this may continue for some time.

Because Jim’s firm has salary continuance insurance Jim continues to receive a part of his salary while he is absent. His manager is happy for Jim to continue his leave of absence for the time being. The HR manager would prefer to take a more proactive approach and is now working with the supervisor to implement this.

*not his real name

Key Learning Points

  • Take a proactive approach and manage mental health problems as early as possible. Jim’s supervisor and HR manager should have taken action to manage Jim’s situation at an earlier stage.
  • Communicate with those in your organisation (or outside it) who can assist you. As a supervisor, managing staff with mental health problems can be challenging. Make sure you communicate at an early stage with those who can offer support.
  • Incorporate return-to-work planning as early as possible. Taking a proactive work-focused approach as soon as possible can help improve return to work outcomes.
  • Make the link between salary continuance and engagement with treatment. This may play a role in helping employees to engage with treatment when they are reluctant to do so.

Katrina* Secretary VIC

Katrina* is a secretary in a large company. She has worked for a senior manager for 10 years, having come with him from another company. They always got on well and her work had been good. After a number of years, Katrina started to suffer from depression, anxiety and panic attacks. She was often absent and when at work, would spend long periods of time away from her desk. Her work performance suffered, she found it difficult to complete work on time and would often forget things.

After a long period of time trying to support Katrina and help her manage her work, her supervisor contacted the HR department because he felt unable to continue to do this. The HR manager met with Katrina for coffee. Initially, Katrina was uncomfortable about disclosing details of her mental health problems but did eventually give permission for the HR manager to contact her doctor.

Katrina let the HR manager know that she was organising to meet with a psychologist. The HR manager kept in contact with Katrina to follow her progress and also kept in contact with Katrina’s supervisor to monitor her work performance. However, her mental health did not improve and after 4 months it became clear that Katrina was not keeping the appointments with her psychologist.

At this point, the company engaged a rehabilitation provider to help support Katrina and bring a work focus to her treatment. The rehabilitation provider accompanied Katrina to the sessions with her doctor and her psychologist. As Katrina’s GP was not willing to give the company very much information about Katrina’s condition, the company also organised for Katrina to see a psychiatrist and to have cognitive testing.

After having more time off work, Katrina returned and the company arranged modified work arrangements for her. Her secretarial role was changed to a word processing role and her hours were reduced. However, Katrina remains unwell and has had more time off work.

*not her real name

Key Learning Points

  • As a supervisor it is important to raise concerns about an employee and seek help at an early stage. Katrina’s supervisor should have raised his concerns about her with the HR manager at an earlier stage. This would have helped Katrina to get into treatment earlier and improved her chances of recovery.
  • If an employee’s work performance declines, explore the reasons, particularly if signs suggest that a mental health problem may be involved. Katrina’s work performance was not satisfactory. Because the company had information from Katrina’s doctor and knew she had a mental health problem, they were able to avoid the performance management process.
  • Build rapport and keep in contact with employees with mental health problems. In this case, the HR manager made an effort to build a rapport with Katrina and kept in contact with her to support her and check on her progress. Because of this, she became aware that Katrina was not in treatment and was able to engage a rehabilitation provider to help with this.
  • Engage rehabilitation providers to assist with rehabilitation and recovery from mental health problems. Managing mental health problems can be time consuming. If it is possible, engage a rehabilitation provider as they can be very helpful in assisting with this process.
  • Make sure that the rehabilitation provider is someone who is acceptable to the employee so that a supportive relationship can be developed. Getting an employee into treatment and back to work is more likely if the relationships between employees and rehabilitation and other health providers are good.