How to cope with mental health issues in the workplace


Approximately 45% of Australians experience mental health issues at some point during their lifetime. The majority of workers successfully manage their illness without it impacting on their work,

The majority of workers successfully manage their illness without it impacting on their work, however, some may require workplace support for a short period of time or even require ongoing workplace strategies. 

 Written By Meghan Betts

Why providing mental health support in the workplace benefits everyone

An ‘unhealthy’ work environment or a workplace incident can cause considerable stress and exacerbate, or contribute to, the development of mental illness. A survey of more than 5000 workers reported in a guide by the Australian Human Rights Commission indicated that 25% of workers took time off every year for stress-related reasons, with a total of 3.2 days per worker lost each year. Preliminary research also suggests that Australian businesses lose over $6.5 billion each year by failing to provide early intervention/treatment for employees with mental health conditions.


Maintaining someone in a job whilst they have been unwell remains far less costly than losing them and having to hire and train someone new, with research suggesting that for every dollar spent on managing mental health issues in the workplace there is an almost 500% return in improved productivity due to increased output and reduced leave.


Recognising and promoting mental health is an essential part of creating a safe and healthy workplace. Understanding the effects of mental illness and undertaking simple modifications in the workplace to provide support ensures employees feel respected and cared for, improving workplace environment and productivity.


How can you help as  a manager?

As a manager it is important to understand how to address and manage mental health issues in the workplace and ensure your staff are getting the support they need. This involves not only being personally supportive but also ensuring your workspace meets their needs.


Discussing the subject with the person concerned

If an employee has disclosed their mental illness,  it is important to show willingness to understand and support them. At the same time, you’ll need to discuss any potential productivity issues and how you can work together to address these, focussing on strengths and identifying areas where additional support may be needed.

If the employee has not disclosed a mental health issue but you are concerned that they may be affected, approach the subject as you would with any other health issue. Plan a meeting in a quiet and private place and express your concerns, assuring them that you want to help address the issues and provide the support they need. Make sure you discuss confidentiality and know what policies  your organisation has in place to assist employees experiencing mental health issues


Make an action plan

It is also important to determine a personal action plan for how to proceed should they become unwell at work. Having a plan put in place in advance of a time when they may not be coping as well takes the pressure off all parties involved and also facilitates an open dialogue. This action plan should cover symptoms, early warning signs and triggers; the potential impact on their performance; what support they need; and positive steps the individual can take.


Workplace modifications

Sometimes simple workplace modifications may be helpful in maintaining the wellbeing and productivity of the affected person. Employers should explore the specific needs of the individual and work together to develop solutions that benefit everyone.

Examples of possible modifications include:

  • Flexible working hours or a change in shifts
  • Change of workspace – quieter, more/less busy, dividing screens, closer to natural light etc
  • Option of part-time working or working from home (although regular phone calls should be encouraged to keep the person connected)
  • Changes to break times
  • Provision of quiet rooms or ‘safe spaces’
  • Return-to-work policies such as phased return
  • Relaxing of absence rules and limits or increasing availability to take leave short notice to assist with need for appointments etc
  • Reallocation of certain tasks or duties

Plus additional support including:

  • Increased supervision or extra help to avoid becoming overwhelmed with workloads
  • Additional training or coaching
  • Mentor or ‘buddy’ schemes
  • More positive and constructive feedback
  • Debriefing sessions and regular opportunities to discuss, review and reflect on their achievements
  • Provision of self-help information and resources as well as knowledge of support services


Providing support such as the examples listed above increases the likelihood of aiding a quicker recovery and the affected person being able to continue in work.

Other resources

There are also important considerations for managers whilst an employee is off sick and upon their return to work, with detailed information available from Mind. Other useful resources include Sane Australia which provides a guide with case study examples of helpful ways to act in situations where a staff member is experiencing a mental health issue, and Mindful Employer – a unique workplace mental health program that helps organisations improve their culture of mental health and wellbeing.


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