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A delicate balance: maintaining organisational culture while managing mental illness in the workplace

Mental stress-related absenteeism and presenteeism are becoming more common in the Australian workplace, with such workers' compensation claims costing businesses an average total of $342,00 per claim. While investing in employee’s mental well-being is crucial to organisational success, are there limits to how flexible employers can be, when considering the daily functioning of a business and its established workplace culture?

 

A recent case before the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal highlights the importance of effectively managing performance, in relation to mental illness, and an organisation’s understanding of their legal responsibilities within this area.

An employee began working for a debt recovery company in October 2006. He was considered a stellar worker from the time he started at the organisation through his 2011 promotion into a supervisory role. 

After nearly two years at this level, the employee underwent a performance appraisal. The results of that appraisal were exceedingly below the employee’s expectations as his performance had fallen by some 41% when measured over the preceding 3 months. 

After unsuccessfully challenging the outcome of this performance review, the employee consequently went on sick leave and obtained psychiatric treatment and a diagnosis of depression due to this experience.

The employee returned to work in a part-time capacity, with a view to returning to full-time work once his health recovered, starting with two days per week and adding an additional day each fortnight. Several months later, the employee’s doctor advised that the employee’s then 3-day per week schedule was challenging and the timeline for his full-time return to work [was] yet to be determined.  It is alleged the company then terminated his employment on the grounds that he was unable to fulfil a genuine requirement of his position to work full-time. 

The employee argued that when his employment was terminated he was suffering from an “impairment” for the purposes of s.7(h) of the Act, and that prior to termination he had been discriminated against in his employment because of an impairment.

The Tribunal, however, found the employer didn't discriminate against the employee when it dismissed him over his inability to work full-time. The employee also conceded that his daily responsibilities did require a high level of supervision and that the sharing of duties, on a regular part-time basis, would be difficult and also impose a financial burden upon the employer.

iHR Australia believe it is important that team leaders acquire the skills to manage staff that are afflicted with mental illness, yet also be aware of their legal responsibilities. In early 2016, iHR will begin offering the training, Managing Mental Ill-Health in the Workplace, both publicly and on-site, to assist employers in effectively handling this complex issue. Register your interest in the forthcoming program here.

 

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