Mental health in the workplace
About one in five Australians will experience a mental illness, and most of us will experience a mental health problem at some time in our lives, according to the Australian Government Department of Health.
Mental (psychological) health, just like physical health, is an important part of work health and safety (WHS).
What is Mental Health?
According to the Australian Government Department of Health:
“A mental illness is health problem that significantly affects how a person feels, thinks, behaves, and interacts with other people. It is diagnosed according to standardised criteria. The term mental disorder is also used to refer to these health problems.
“A mental health problem also interferes with how a person thinks, feels, and behaves, but to a lesser extent than a mental illness.
“Mental health problems are less severe than mental illnesses, but may develop into a mental illness if they are not effectively dealt with.
“Mental illnesses are of different types and degrees of severity. Some of the major types are
depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar mood disorder, personality disorders, and eating disorders.”
“Most mental illnesses can be effectively treated. Recognising the early signs and symptoms of mental illness and accessing effective treatment early is important. The earlier treatment starts, the better the outcome.”
Mental health at work
Along with being aware of critical legislation protecting workers’ industrial rights who suffer from mental health at work, it’s important to be aware of both worker’s rights and responsibilities regarding mental health.
You have a right to work in a safe workplace.
Under section 19 of the Work Health and Safety Act 2011, employers have a responsibility to provide as far as practicable the health and safety of its workers.
‘Health’ is defined in the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 as both physical and psychological health.
You have a right to privacy.
If you tell your employer you have a mental health condition, they can’t disclose this information to anyone without your consent. They can only use this information for the purpose for which you told them, such as adjusting your role or working environment to make allowances for your mental health condition.
If your mental health condition does not affect how you do your job, you have no legal obligation to tell your employer about it. This applies whether you are a current employee or a potential employee going through the recruitment process.
You are protected against anti-discrimination laws.
Under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992, it is illegal for an employer to discriminate against someone on the grounds of disability – including a mental health condition.
If a person can fulfil the ‘inherent requirements’ of the job they should be given as much chance to do that job as anyone else.
Employers must offer equal employment opportunities to someone with a mental health condition:
- during the recruitment process, including advertising, interviewing and other selection procedures
- in deciding who will get the job
- when negotiating terms and conditions of employment, such as pay rates, work hours and leave
- in determining promotion, transfer, training and other benefits associated with employment
- in the dismissal, demotion or retrenchment process.
WHS laws protect your right to a safe workplace, but employees also have responsibilites. You must take care of yourself and others and cooperate with your employer in matters of health and safety. This applies to all workers, whether they have a disability or not.
Under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (Cth), an employee’s ability to work safely is an 'inherent' or essential requirement of any job. If an employee’s mental health condition could reasonably be seen to cause a health and safety risk for other people at work, then failing to disclose that risk could be a breach of their obligations under work health and safety legislation.
Employers have a right to ask…
Employers have the right to ask certain questions about an employee or potential employee’s mental health condition.
Where more information about a condition is ‘legitimate, necessary and desirable', an employer is permitted to ask an employee or potential employee for details. This may be:
- to determine whether the person can perform the inherent requirements of the job
- to identify if any reasonable adjustments may be needed, either in the selection and recruitment process or in the work environment and role
- to establish facts for entitlements such as sick leave, superannuation, workers’ compensation and other insurance.
For example, it might be legitimate to ask an employee questions about their medication if the job involves operating machinery.
If your employer does ask these legitimate questions, they MUST maintain confidentiality and protect employee privacy against improper access and disclosure.
Your employer has a duty of care to provide a safe workplace.
Under each state and territory’s work health and safety legislation, there are obligations to ensure (so far as is reasonably practicable) the health and safety of workers and others in the workplace.
The employer, or person in control of the business, should ensure health and safety so far as is reasonably practicable by:
- providing and maintaining a work environment without risk to health and safety
- providing and maintaining safe systems of work
- monitoring the health of workers and the conditions at the workplace
- consulting with workers and their representatives on work health and safety matters
- providing information, training, instruction and supervision so workers can safely perform their work activities.
Under anti-discrimination law, employers must make changes to your job (known as ‘reasonable adjustments’), provided you can still fulfil the core or inherent requirements of the role.
The Disability Discrimination Act 1992 also requires employers to prevent harassment to an individual experiencing a mental health condition, including physical and verbal abuse.
- If you feel that you may be suffering from mental health issues, see your GP straight away. You can also contact:
Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636
Lifeline (24 hour crisis support): 13 11 14
- If you suspect a colleague could be suffering from mental health issues, listen to them. Suggest they see their GP or utilise the workplace’s employee assistance program. If necessary, consult with your supervisor or HR.
- Unless you are a qualified medical practitioner don’t try to treat someone who may be suffering with mental health issues. Rather, refer them to appropriate medical care.
- Most employers offer counselling services to their employees for free or that are discounted. Make sure you familiarise yourself with your workplaces resources and what is available.
- If you have questions regarding the health and safety of your workplace, if you think you’ve been treated unfairly at work because of a mental health condition, or if you would like information on your rights, speak to your SDA union delegate, union organiser or call the SDA’s helpline on 1300 SDA HELP (1300 732 4357).