Managing Mental Health in the Workplace

How employers can help employees with mental health issues

According to Diversity Council Australia (DCA) employment outcomes for people with disabilities, including mental illness are poor in Australia. Having a mental health disability can significantly impact upon a person’s ability to engage in employment and the participation rate for people with a disabling mental illness is only 51 per cent.

In addition, research by the International Labour Organisation shows that the cost of mental illness for employers and society are significant with conservative estimates putting them at 3-4 per cent of GDP.

Promoting and maintaining mental health among employees seems, therefore, to make good business sense. People spend much of their life at work and creating a workplace culture which shares responsibility for mental health will boost productivity, reduce costs as well as being in the best interests of employees.

What can employers do to promote better mental health?

Successfully preventing and managing mental health issues in the workplace requires employers to take a hands on approach to recognising it as a problem and introducing policies which increase awareness surrounding mental health issues.

Employers must work to identify workplace practices which contribute to mental illness and strategies for combating them provide confidential support for employees and take a proactive approach to educate managers about the risks of mental illness if it is not handled correctly.

According to Employee Assistance Professional Association of Australia employers can help promote good mental health in the work place by:

  • adopting healthy and flexible work conditions that encourage work/life balance, such as flexible working hours or opportunities to work from home
  • promoting mental health awareness as a workplace requirement
  • build awareness of the risks of stress, and how to recognise and reduce it
  • setting realistic work loads
  • referring employees to material on mental health programs and initiatives offered by the Australian Government
  • Investing in early intervention and preventative strategies, such as:
    • Employee assistance programs which provide a confidential service for all employees and their families to deal with problems that may be causing difficulties in their work or personal lives.
    • Mental wellness forums or activities that promote healthy practices such as home and life balance, physical exercise, diet, and stress reduction practices.

Flexible work

The Australian Human Rights Commission publication Workers with Mental Illness: a Practical Guide for Managers identifies flexible work options as one of the most effective strategies for meeting the needs of workers with a mental illness. Opportunities for flexible work well for employees with mental health issues as they enable employees to choose (within reason) when, where and how they work to increase the chance of sustained mental wellbeing.

The Guide recommends the arrangements below as examples of strategies which could help you attract and retain employees with mental health concerns:

  • variable start and finish times and days worked, provided core business hours are worked, the overall fortnightly or monthly hours are met and the essential business needs are achieved
  • working from home, provided the allocated tasks are met and core meetings and events are attended
  • ability to work part-time
  • discretionary leave where additional sick leave provisions are made available to the worker
  • offering the worker a variety of tasks
  • offering a work area in a quieter location
  • providing a privacy screen or arrangement to offer the worker their ‘own’ space
  • changing or sharing responsibilities or tasks, such as providing administrative duties rather than telephone or face-to-face contact with customers.

It is important to ensure that flexible work arrangements are devised in close consultation with the employee to ensure that the person doesn’t end up feeling marginalised or isolated as a result of the changes.


Communicating with employees about mental wellbeing can be a challenge for managers who may not feel as though they have the vocabulary or medical expertise to talk confidently about the subject. This problem can be tackled through an organisational policy which promotes ongoing training and awareness for managers on mental health issues and supplies employees with information and resources about mental wellbeing generally as well as information specific to the organisation.

All employees should be made aware of any employee assistance programs designed to help them manage the stress of working life. These confidential programs offer employees the opportunity to manage their mental wellbeing without involving a manager if that is what they prefer to do.

Managers involved in helping employees manage their mental health on a day-to-day basis require organisational support and access to training and resources to ensure they are acting in the employee’s best interests. Privacy is a key issue and managers need to treat the details of any discussions around mental health with an employee as strictly confidential unless an employee provides permission for them to be discussed openly.

Employees are not legally required to disclose a mental health condition and this can be frustrating for managers who may suspect something is wrong but be unable to address their concerns. Managers need to ensure employees have access to external support and should be prepared to look at any reasonable measures they can to help the employee manage any bouts of unhealthiness, such as flexible work options.

Managing mental wellbeing in the workplace requires an overarching organisational approach designed to educate and inform and provide people with the information and resources they need to seek help when they need it or be sympathetic in instances where colleagues suffer from periods of illness.

Organisations which take a proactive approach to raising awareness about mental wellbeing can expect to experience increased staff retention, reduced costs and boosts in productivity as well as the benefits to be gained from a diverse workforce.

Further reading

Australian Human Rights Commission Workers with Mental Illness: A Practical Guide for Managers

1. National Mental Health Commission

 This Better Workplace Bulletin was First Published in April 2013