Is mental health affecting your workplace?

by | Jul 26, 2023 | Health & Safety

Mental health is a hugely varied and difficult thing to deal with, and everyone’s journey is different.  But the impact on, not only the individual, but also the team around them is huge.

Key learnings in this article

  1. PCBU needs to look after everyone’s health and safety
  2. The individual has responsibility for their own health and wellbeing not just the employer.
  3. The best intentions can backfire

Mental health is a growing problem

I personally suffer from mental health issues and have had several episodes of clinical depression and anxiety throughout my life.  Through a lot of hard work (and some awesome counsellors, friends, and family) I have worked on ways in which I can recognise my own symptoms, and deal with them before they escalate.  I’m also in the very fortunate position that, as a business owner, if I need to slow down a little, take a day off etc then I can (provided clients are looked after).

The huge increase in mental health issues the world over is well documented, and we can all surmise why that is, but the reality is that there are a whole host of contributing factors, both real and perceived.  Kiri Allen’s battles with mental health have been well documented in the press, and I have a huge deal of sympathy for someone who has had to struggle with those demons, and then have the ultimate fall from grace plastered across the headlines certainly cannot have helped.  I wish her all the best for working past those demons.

But as recently as 30th June the Prime Minister was answering questions about allegations that Kiri Allen “yelled and screamed” at staff in the workplace.  Though not much detail is in the press (correctly for her privacy) the reality is that, at some level, Kiri’s mental health was impacting on others in the workplace.  We are all human, and, if we are under stress (whether from home or work) that will manifest in our interactions with others, and usually negatively.

Providing a safe working environment

As an employer, you have a legal obligation to provide a safe working environment.  This is not only for the individual concerned but also for those people around that person. 

So, how do you deal with mental health in the workplace:

  1. Find out the FACTS about what the issue is and how it is being managed:
    1. This should generally come from health practitioners (see consent for release of medical information at the end of this article), not just what the individual tells you.  Personally, the first time I went through such an episode I wasn’t aware at the time how much my personality changed, and it did, I became very withdrawn.
    1. Are they on medication?  Many medications take some time (usually a number of weeks) to really kick in, so you won’t usually see an overnight change.  However, some medications may have side effects such as drowsiness and, if they are operating heavy machinery, they may not be safe to be in the workplace.
    1. What are they doing to help themselves?  Counselling, diet change, alcohol reduction, more exercise etc.  Mental health is multi-faceted, and the individual will need to work to help themselves if there are to work past those demons.
  2. What can you do to help them, and also at the same time protect others from the impact?
    1. Maybe then could take a leave of absence for a period?
    1. Can they move to part-time for a period?
    1. If they are in a staff management role, can you move their staff to report to A N Other for a period?
    1. If alcohol is a problem is having alcohol-centric team building events really the best way to help them feel included in the team?
  3. What is the impact on others?
    1. Extra workload pressures – can you spread the workload better and/or get in a temp
    1. Aggressive behaviour – though mental health may be what is causing the aggression, it is not acceptable or excusable and that definitely needs to be addressed quickly
    1. High error rate in work – though they may be at work, it may be that the quality and accuracy have dropped away creating extra pressure on others to fix mistakes.
    1. Highly emotional – though we can all have sympathy for people in this situation, the reality is that sympathy only goes so far and the risk is that the individual starts to become isolated from the team and/or others resent their presence.

The individual has responsibility for their own health and wellbeing

With the right management and self-care people can overcome mental health challenges or, at least, find ways to live with them.  As a business owner or manager, you can provide a level of support, but they also have to do their bit and can’t just sit back and use it as an excuse forever and a day.  It is OK to say “enough is enough, you are now no longer up upholding your end of the employment relationship”.  You may need to consider medical retirement in this situation.

Best intentions can backfire

It is important that you work with the individual and their medical practitioners to come up with an action plan that works for that situation.  For example:

  1. Giving an open-ended “come back whenever you are ready” may seem fantastic, but, this can create anxiety if the individual is feeling they are letting the team down
  2. Giving time off may be the best thing for their health, but it may also create financial challenges.  A compromise may be to make a part-time arrangement and/or give them some budgeting support.
  3. Taking work off them or changing their allocated tasks.  This may be necessary if the medication is affecting their ability to safely do certain tasks.  But you need a plan in place around the timeframe as to when they will be taking back full duties.  You don’t want to end up inadvertently creating a new (lightweight) role that is actually not of value to the business in the long term.

Consent for release of medical information

In any medical situation, it is better to get an understanding from professionals about what should or should not be done.  To achieve that you ask the employee for consent for release of medical information (Template letters on the website).  The doctor will only provide you with information that is relevant to the job they are performing and will usually discuss the report with the individual before providing it.  However, the employee does have the right to refuse consent for release of medical information.  In which can you have the right to proceed based on the information you have available to you.   

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