From experience conducting hundreds of workplace investigations iHR Australia’s Director Workplace Relations John Boardman contends that parties to a workplace investigation are often suffering mental ill health or are mentally fragile prior to the lodgement of a formal complaint. Mr Boardman’s experience is consistent with figures suggesting that 45% of Australians experience a mental health condition at some point in their work life (ABS, 2008). These conditions are not always work related but almost always impact on a person’s ability to work to their normal standard and sometimes work with those around them.
There is an onus on managers and supervisors to address the root cause of unreasonable behaviour and take appropriate action to prevent it from continuing, even in the case that the staff member has a mental ill-health condition. When conducting a workplace investigation, a person’s health condition is a mitigating factor that needs to be separated from the finding of fact regarding the alleged behaviour. Mr Boardman emphasises that the workplace investigator is charged with identifying whether or not there is substance to an allegation of workplace bullying, not to identify a person’s mental well-being. Similarly, a manager who becomes aware of poor behaviour in the workplace is charged with ensuring it ceases, not just accepting or working around the person’s mental health issue. Not dealing with the poor behaviour in the workplace is negligence, especially if the behaviour has the potential to cause physical or psychological damage to others. It is appropriate to make reasonable adjustment to assist employees with a mental disability; but not at the expense of the health and safety of other workplace participants, Mr. Boardman said.
However, if in the context of a bullying allegation or just everyday work life, a manager is concerned for a staff member’s mental well-being, he or she has a moral and legal obligation to act. This could be to talk to the person directly and confidentially about concerns for their well-being, providing access to professional support services or having a confidential discussion with a one up manager or human resource professional. Managers, themselves, should expect to be supported by the organisation when dealing with the sensitivities surrounding mental ill-health and dealing with the complexities of poor behaviour that may be caused by mental ill-health.
John Boardman’s insights reinforce the importance of manager education in two spheres. First, in relation to addressing inappropriate behaviour and, second on conducting a discussion when they are concerned about the mental well-being of a staff member. Along with training on Anti-Discrimination, Harassment and Bullying, these two areas make up a trilogy of essential learning for all those in leadership roles.
Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2008). National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing: Summary of Results, 2007. Cat. no. (4326.0). Canberra: ABS.