Disclosing mental illness at work: does your organisation measure up?

Has an employee shared their mental health issues with someone in your company?

In the aftermath of awareness of mental health in the workplace, there are certain steps that team leaders and HR professionals should take, in an effort to move forward and cultivate a positive culture moving forward.


Yet this isn’t always the case, says Georgie Harman, CEO of beyondblue Australia, who says that in certain situations, an employee may find it is “better not to tell” if they are suffering from a mental health condition.

“This may seem an unlikely message from the CEO of beyondblue as we campaign for an end to discrimination,” she writes in The Age.

“But we need to get real here: while I believe change is happening and more and more business leaders and employers are signing up to a genuine cultural shift, I still too often hear stories of people’s careers taking a nosedive when they reveal they have a mental health condition.”

Of course, this is not always the case. For one Sydney lawyer, informing her superior that she was struggling with a mental health condition turned out to be the best thing she could have done.

“One day, when I was really struggling, my boss asked me what was wrong. I replied, ‘I think I have depression’ then burst out crying,” she says.

“My boss gave me a hug, told me it was okay, and [told me] to take time off if I needed. I saw my GP and was subsequently diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety.”

Her superior’s kind reaction paved the way for her to work towards recovery. The lawyer reveals she often had appointments with her psychologist during working hours – with her boss’s full support.

The way her supervisor handled her mental illness diagnosis wasn’t just compassionate, it also made good business sense. As a result of her ongoing treatment, the lawyer confirms that she didn’t miss a single day of work, something that can’t be said for those who suffer in silence.

Government statistics show that one in five Australians will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime, with common conditions like depression and anxiety having a potential to impact on work performance.

Consequently, it is beneficial for all parties involved when organisations consider their approach towards managing mental health issues.

It’s also important for businesses to understand that legally, employers have an obligation to make reasonable adjustments for employees (and even prospective employees) who disclose that they have a mental illness. Failure to make modifications in this regard may constitute discrimination.

According to Workplace Health and Safety legislation, reasonable adjustments an employer could put in place include:

  • Offering an employee flexible work arrangements, including variable start and finish times, additional breaks, part-time hours or the ability to work from home.
  • Changing certain aspects of the employee’s role to minimise stress and ensure clear directives, such as using email to provide written information about tasks, or replacing a large demanding project with a number of smaller, more discrete tasks.
  • Altering the workplace or work area with such equipment as privacy screens, so the employee has access to a quieter or more personal working area.


iHR Australia recognises the myriad complexities that surround mental illness in the workplace, and has developed a program designed to help supervisors, managers and HR practitioners understand the key principles of effectively and sensitively managing this issue.

Launching in early 2016, the program will focus upon relevant legal responsibilities, risk and performance management considerations. Delivered via iHR’s unique Workplace Reality Theatre, the facilitator and actors will re-enact relevant and engaging workplace scenarios concerning this topic. More information on iHR’s Managing Mental Ill-Health in the Workplace training.