R U OK? Experts warn managers of legal obligations to protect the mental welfare of their staff

Feelings of stress, uneasiness or agitation in the workplace are all too common and experts are urging managers to look after the mental health of their employees or risk seeing more workers burn-out altogether.

Today is R U OK? Day, run by the foundation of the same name with the intent of stomping out mental illness, and employers are being reminded to keep a watchful eye on the mental health of their employees.

In 2012, an Australian Psychological Society report revealed 22% of Australians felt moderate to severe levels of stress throughout the year, with one in five saying it was having a very strong impact upon their mental health.

Out of the 1552 people surveyed, 50% of respondents said financial issues were a leading cause of stress, while 32% specifically said issues in the workplace were their main source of woe.

Of those feeling stressed out, 40% reported turning to alcohol as a coping mechanism. More research shows a significant proportion of Australian workers are depressed and suffer from mental illness.

Organisational and clinical psychologist Dr Peter Cotton told SmartCompany managers need to be on the lookout for people acting differently.

“The two big things from the workplace point of view is people withdrawing and becoming less talkative in the workplace or coming into work late or often not turning up at all, absenteeism,” he says.

“The other big one is disproportionate reactions. This is when people overreact to minor things like discussions or everyday events.”

Cotton says good managers need to have their “finger on the pulse”.

“If you have a reasonable working relationship with someone, you can tell when someone is off their game,” he says.

“When you recognise someone is off their game you need to then initiate a conversation with them, express concern about their wellbeing and ask what you can do to address the issues.”

Research suggests work-induced stress and mental health problems cost Australian businesses more than $10 billion per year.

In April, Safe Work Australia releases research which shows mental stress complaints are the most expensive form of workers’ compensation claims, more professionals made claims of mental stress than any other profession and the majority of claims were made for work pressure.

Over the past 10 years, mental stress has accounted for 95% of all mental disorder workers compensation claims.

Cotton says it will often be a matter of encouraging the person to seek help from the family doctor or referring them to an employee assistance program, but sometimes changes will need to be made in the workplace.

“If people are too stressed or depressed, they go into denial mode and need a push to access relevant services,” he says.

“Managers do have a duty of care to their staff and there is legislation across every state and the Commonwealth which says you must manage foreseeable psychosocial risk.”

Legally, businesses have an obligation to “constructively engage” with their staff, try to get them to access relevant services and, if there are aspects of their work like which are impacting their stress levels, to tweak their duties or change their role.

“It’s the same as the physical environment. You have a responsibility to protect the safety of the employees. The legislation is now equal for mental health and physical health, but some businesses are still adjusting to this,” Cotton says.

Cotton says businesses which have a poor working environment will incur greater costs for workers’ compensation premiums.

“Employers pay premiums to workers’ compensation authorities in each state and nationally to Comcare,” he says.

“The more injuries you have, both physical and mental, the higher these premiums will be. So to use old terminology, creating a positive work environment is a win-win.”

Safe Work Australia’s analysis of workers’ compensation claims for mental health show the median time lost from work because of mental stress is 6.1 weeks and the cost per claim is around $12,700.

Cotton says a “good quality” work environment can actually reduce the likelihood of stress and depression, and employers need to recognise mental health as an ailment like a physical injury.


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