By Samuel Jones

Mental health, psychological safety, emotional well-being – no matter what you call it, now more than ever, employers, HR managers, and people managers need to understand and implement positive psychological health practices in workplaces.

While there are many reasons and triggers for mental health issues, stress is a significant contributing factor. Stress-related workers compensation claims have doubled in recent years, with an average of 3.2 days per employee lost each year because of workplace stress.

Employers play a crucial role in identifying the early signs of mental health concerns and working to address these health and safety issues before they become more serious workplace risks. So what can you do to protect your people and your business? Here we point out five tips that will positively impact your employees’ well-being, increase workplace productivity, and create a safer working environment.

1. Understanding the signs of poor mental health

We spend a significant part of our lives at work, and employers are often in the best positions to recognise the early warning signs of poor mental health and intervene. It’s important to have people in the workplace who can identify those who are struggling – this will assist in creating supportive working environments and helps businesses implement and follow correct processes.

The signs that something is wrong differ from person-to-person, but they can include:

  • increased instances of absenteeism or general lateness.
  • Tiredness, stress, and irritability become much more frequent.
  • Trouble concentrating on assigned tasks and missed deadlines.
  • Being unusually emotional and frustrated.
  • Sudden changes in behaviour, personality, or attitude.

Being proactive when it comes to identifying the warning signs of poor mental health can make all the difference in improving overall employee well-being and general happiness.

2. Know when to reach out

Sometimes, employees who are showing signs of stress simply need time to rest and reset. And, while employers cannot direct an employee to take personal leave, if an employee is showing signs of poor mental health, employers should check in with them and encourage the employee to seek help through an Employee Assistance Program (EAP)or external service.

Services such as an EAP are designed to be anonymous and confidential so employees can access them without judgement or fear.

Having an EAP available to support employees who are dealing with stress or mental health concerns is one of the best resources employers can invest in. When you implement an EAP service for your people, they’ll know that help is available to them should they need it and it shows that you genuinely care about their well-being – it’s a win-win and can bring significant benefits to your business such as increased productivity and a better working environment for all.

3. Monitoring capacity and productivity levels

While an employee’s well-being is a top priority, it’s important to acknowledge the significant impact mental health and fatigue can have on workplace productivity. If, after having extensive check-ins and discussions with an employee you still feel as if their capacity is reduced, employers do have the ability to direct an employee to participate in a review to help them understand their current productivity levels. Such a review can include a performance review where the employee’s performance is assessed against the actual standards of the role. Such a review allows for a more formal opportunity to discuss with the employee the reason behind their poor productivity and explore ways in which a business can assist. If the employee explains that the reason, they’re performing below standard is a result of mental health issues, then you have the right to direct the employee to provide medical evidence certifying this. Once in receipt of the medical certificate, it is imperative that you reach out for professional HR support to be advised of next steps. There is no one-size-fits-all approach since each matter is unique and requires tailored advice.

4. Communication

Starting conversations around mental health and the support options available is a good way to ensure that psychological safety is considered just as important as physical safety in the workplace. It could be regular group or individual catchups, signage around the office, or a general reminder of the services available that will ensure employees remember that their well-being is a priority. Recognising and fixing the beginnings of an unhealthy workplace will not only signal that you’re invested in safeguarding mental health, but also will create a healthy working environment for all your employees. Not only is it important for employers to remember they have a legal obligation to ensure physical safety in the workplace but also psychological safety.

5. Can I direct an employee to take time off for mental health reasons?

In short, it is unlawful for an employee to be forced or directed to take an entitlement like that of personal leave by an employer for any reason, including that of mental health. Under the Fair Work Act (FWA), employees may only direct the use of leave entitlements in circumstances where either:

  1. The employee has excessive leave entitlements; or
  2. The business will shut down for a period of time, for example over the Christmas break.

As an alternative, if an employer believes the employee is not fit for work, they can request a capacity review, which should detail a medical professional’s opinion of the circumstances the employee is in. If this capacity review is insufficient and does not provide the detailed information you need to ensure that your employee is psychologically safe while working, employers may request that employees take annual leave until the review is assessed. If the employee refuses to take annual leave and you genuinely believe that their attendance at work is unsafe or causing a psychological risk, then you are able to direct an employee not to attend work until you receive adequate information concerning their diagnosis, but you are required to continue to pay them full wages.

Whether it’s working to reduce the stigma or encouraging employees to unwind and unplug, it’s important that employers ensure they create and maintain a safe and inclusive workplace for all staff. This includes not discriminating against any employee for reason of disability, in which mental health is classed. We must consider that under the FWA, the act of discrimination due to mental health reasons can be matched with claims of disability discrimination and general protections.

How can HR Assured help?

To help you with any workplace compliance questions you might have, we’d like to offer you a FREE HR Health Check for your business. Our experts will complete a thorough evaluation of your HR that’ll help uncover any hidden risks before they become problems.

If any of the information in this article has raised questions about mental health and leave entitlements for you or you’ve got another workplace matter you need advice on, please reach out to our experts via our 24/7 Telephone Advisory Service.

Not an HR Assured client? If you’d like more information about the benefits of becoming an HR Assured client, contact us today for an informal chat.

Samuel Jones is a Workplace Relations Advisor at HR Assured and assists a variety of clients via the 24/7 Telephone Advisory Service. He is currently studying for a Bachelor of Laws/Bachelor of Psychology (Honours).