Mental health in the workplace

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Mental health in the workplace

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According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing 2007, around 45% of Australians aged between 16-85 will experience a mental illness at some point in their life, while one in five Australian adults will experience a mental illness in any given year.

Mental health is categorised by the Australian Bureau of Statistics into three main categories;

Anxiety disorders which account for 14.4% of all mental health disorders, Mood effective disorders which account for 6.2% of all mental health disorders and substance use disorders which account for 5.1% of all mental heath disorders.

Many workers successfully manage their illness without it impacting their work. However, some may require workplace support for a period of time, while others may require ongoing workplace strategies.






“I think an employee, or a colleague may be struggling with mental health what are some of the signs…”

  • Turning up to work late
  • Looking tired and seeming stressed
  • Having trouble concentrating
  • Being emotionally frustrated
  • Avoiding social activities
  • Sitting alone at lunchtime
  • Unable to accept negative feedback
  • Taking extra leave
  • Becoming aggressive and threatening others


Preparing for the conversation

The best way to approach the initial conversation with an employee is to plan the conversation ahead of time.

Think about what you will say and make sure you have plenty of time in case the conversation is longer than you thought- the last thing you want to happen is having to cut the conversation short to run into another meeting. You also must decide who is best to have the conversation, initially it is often best to keep the conversation between yourself and the employee- ensure you really think about introducing other managers or parties to the meeting.

Choose the right moment and find a quiet place that will make the person feel comfortable. Make sure it’s not a time when they will be distracted and avoid communal areas where you may bump into other staff members.


Having a mental health conversation


  • Explain to the employee what you have noticed and what has made you concerned
  • Have information about services available you can refer your employee too (for example Employee Assistance Programs)
  • Start the conversation with open questions, ensure to keep the tone of the conversation supportive and empathetic
  • Ensure you do ask about any workplace issues that may be aggravating the employee condition, this may mean temporarily altering their duties


  • Try to counsel your employee, know your limits as their manager- you are not a trained counsellor
  • Let the conversation turn into a performance or conduct management discussion
  • Seek confidential, personal information- such as the employees diagnosis and prognosis or their treatment plan- employees are entitled to keep this information private.


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Suicide prevention

When you or a colleague has become increasing worried that a fellow team member may be having thoughts of self-harm, the best course of action is to explain what you have observed that has caused you to become concerned, ask open ended questions, ensure you are listening actively and emphatically, use the word ‘suicide’ and ask the person if they are thinking about suicide including

  • Do you intend to take your life (Intention)?
  • Do you have a plan to take your life (Plan)?
  • Do you have access to the means to carry out the plan (pills, gun) (Means)?
  • Do you have a timeframe for taking your life (Timeframe)?

Ensure you don’t argue, judge or threaten to attempt to diagnose and don’t leave the person alone, for more information head to


Engaging Doctors

When engaging doctors ensure you obtain consent in writing from employees before communicating with their treating doctor. Employees do have the right to refuse consent, ask questions of the doctor about work capacity, safety, workplace adjustments and time frames. Don’t delay contacting an employee’s doctor is you have genuine safety concerns and avoid using this assessment to prove an employee wasn’t sick on a specific occasion- ensure you focus on establishing work capacity. 



Source: 2007 National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing – Australian Bureau of Statistics

Source: Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry 

Note: Everything in this article should be used as a guide only. 

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