Are you responsible for your employee’s mental health? No, you don’t think so? Well think again!
1 in 5 Australians will suffer some form of mental disorder at some stage of the life. Every year a further 20,000 are found to have a mental illness. This includes during their working life.
So, what does this mean for you as a business owner? Well there are two issues:
First, largely due to the stigma attached to mental illness, it is often not seen in the same category as illnesses such as the flu, measles or cancer. We often don’t know how to treat or interact with someone with a mental illness, whereas we are comfortable to send flowers and arrange support for the ‘traditional’ maladies. We need to admit to ourselves that it’s highly likely we will employee someone with a mental illness and we need to be able to manage this, within our business.
One of the common causes of mental illness is stress and the second, and mostly unknown repercussion for business owners, is that stress falls under Workplace Health and Safety – there is an onus on Directors to protect employees. The current NSW Act places the primary duty of care for health and safety on the employer. You must create a working environment that is safe and can eliminate health risks that are stress-related.
As an employer you are required to:
- use risk assessment techniques to understand and measure risk levels
- respond to any identified stress hazard(s) by implementing suitable control measures
As such, there is now a strong expectation from the courts that employers are able to demonstrate how documented assessment of hazards and risk, combined with the use of sufficient, measured risk control, actually lead to effective risk reduction.
In the case of State of NSW vs. Marilyn Mannal (2005) NSW CA 367, Judge McLaughlin found the State of NSW Dept of Housing in Wagga was derelict in its duty of care and awarded $330,000. Ms Mannal claimed that when she was appointed as a Team Leader after a restructure, she was subjected to victimisation, harassment, humiliation and abuse in the workplace, which had caused psychiatric injury.
Ms Mannal had been instructed to attack the existing workplace culture and started her new role enthusiastically. The team, maybe still loyal to the previous, replaced Team Leader, became more dysfunctional; actively harassing her, were rude and did not accept her direction. Her Manager, although aware of the situation, failed to intervene on Ms Mannal’s behalf. After 19 months and many requests to Management for support, Ms Mannal sought medical assistance for a stress disorder. The Judge found that the management knew there was significant disruption and disloyalty within the team and that, therefore, the risks to mental health were foreseeable and that both formal and informal internal mechanisms in place had not been utilised.
As an employer, you are not expected to be a counsellor nor a medical practitioner but you are expected to provide a safe working environment and appropriately support any employer suffering from a mental illness. We can help you with strategies to mitigate this risk. Remember all your employees matter!