Don't ignore mental health: it's an OHS issue

Don

By Gaby Grammeno on 30 October 2018 Mental health issues are said to affect one in every five Australians. If this is true, employers will be feeling the flow-on effects on a whole range of levels.

Challenges due to mental health issues can arise in relation to colleagues, customers, and clients, any of whom can generate management conundrums of one kind or another.

Many employers are engaged with mental health in very direct ways, including providers of health services to special needs groups, aged care facilities, police, hospitals, refuges and prisons; employers of paramedics, teachers, social security workers, researchers and home care services; community mental health peak bodies and organisations representing carers and consumers.

From the receptionist in the public hospital dental clinic to the community nurse knocking at the door of the disabled old woman with the burly, threatening and strangely-behaving son, workers can find themselves dealing with mental health issues at any hour of the day. 

Coming from a different angle – with different challenges – some employers have adopted a policy of employing staff who may otherwise never manage to find work, due to their intellectual or psychological limitations or social disadvantages.

More commonly, employers and managers are confronted with scenarios in which it is difficult to disentangle the threads of work stress, domestic discord, lifestyle issues and personality or mental health impacts. A further complication is the question of whether the present situation is temporary and transient, or chronic and long term. And most pressing of all, what, if anything, should the employer do about it?

Risks relating to mental health issues


Anyone dealing with the public can at times find themselves on the receiving end of aggression or even violence arising in part from mental health disorders.  

Violence against health care professionals is unfortunately not uncommon. Nurses report being sworn at, hit, threatened, forcibly kissed and having their arms broken. Even personnel in government offices such as tax and social services can bear the brunt of abuse and, on occasion, assault.

Even more prevalent than outright violence and abuse is the stress experienced by staff exposed to behaviour to which mental health issues have contributed. Employees who are excessively volatile, anxious, distressed or seem otherwise unable to collaborate productively can unwittingly create bottlenecks, frustration and hostility among their supervisors and fellow workers.

Personal, family and lifestyle issues can impose further layers of stress on people with mental health vulnerabilities, as preoccupations with financial, marital, gambling or alcohol/drug related problems distract from a focus on the job. Situations to do with children or the needs of aging parents can also undermine the job performance of staff who are emotionally unstable, with clear ramifications for employers in terms of the productivity and effectiveness of their workforce. 

In the worst case scenarios, depressed employees can become a danger to themselves and others. Suicide has been flagged as a notable risk for construction workers, and in positions where the depressed staff member’s actions can affect large number of others, it can be catastrophic. For example, in the case of the Germanwings co-pilot said to have deliberately crashed Flight 9525 in March 2015, having been previously treated for suicidal tendencies and declared unfit for work by his doctor. 

The business case for managing mental health issues


It is clearly in employers’ business interests to manage any risks related to mental health issues, in order to minimise lost time and optimise productivity. A positive approach to managing mental health will also help the organisation to comply with work health and safety requirements.

Employers’ obligations


The employer’s duty of care is not diminished in any way by the mental health issues of staff, clients or others. The various Work Health and Safety Acts define ‘health’ to mean both physical and psychological health, so the employer’s obligation to ensure the health and safety of workers and others explicitly includes the responsibility to provide and maintain a working environment free of risks to mental health, so far as is reasonably practicable.

Strategies for managing risks


Risks to mental health must be managed, along with other types of risks. The standard approach of risk identification, assessment and control should be applied, whatever the type of workplace. It is also advisable to encourage help-seeking behaviour among staff, and to try to create a workplace culture that reduces the stigma associated with mental illness.

Employers should ensure they monitor particular cases to prevent discrimination against workers with a disability (including mental health conditions). They should also ensure that workers’ personal information is protected – in other words, an employee’s mental health status must not be disclosed to anyone else without their consent.

Employee assistance programs (EAPS) may be helpful either with short term situations or in circumstances where workplace-based risk control options are limited in their effectiveness.

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