Tom says he has anxiety: what should you do?


Tom says he has anxiety: what should you do?

What should you do if a staff member tells you he's been diagnosed with a mental health condition? Gaby Grammeno explains.


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What should you do if a staff member tells you they’ve been diagnosed with a mental health condition?

First of all: don’t panic. If your first reaction is to start worrying about lost productivity, disruptions to employee cooperation or the prospect of alarming symptoms, put that aside and think again.

Start by recognising that mental health disorders are extremely common, with almost half the Australian population suffering a mental disorder at some time in their lives. Mental illness occurs on a spectrum – in mild cases, the symptoms might only persist for a few weeks, but severe illness can be life-long and cause serious disability.

Jennifer Cameron, injury prevention manager at icare, says the odds are there are lots of people with mental health problems already in your workforce, and most of them will be carrying out their tasks without adverse effects on the business.

Building trust

"The key to successful management of people with mental health issues is to create an environment of trust," Ms Cameron said. 

Confidentiality is a vital prerequisite to trust. Mental illness can carry a stigma and attract discrimination so it is essential to keep your discussions with a staff member who has a mental health issue absolutely private and confidential. In any case, information about a person’s health is considered ‘sensitive information’ under privacy laws, and is given a higher level of protection than other personal information.

Invite the staff member with the mental health disorder to talk about their job and its demands in the context of their psychological state. The most common mental disorders are depression, anxiety and substance use disorders, and depending on the job, these conditions can affect an individual’s capacity to function appropriately in their role.

To illustrate the point with a very extreme example, you don’t want a suicidal person flying a plane – who can forget Germanwings Flight 4U 9525, which crashed into a mountain at 700km/h, due to a severely depressed co-pilot. In that case, the co-pilot had been treated for suicidal tendencies and declared unfit to work by his doctor, but he had kept this information from his employer and instead reported for duty. 

This is another key benefit of creating an environment of trust – staff are less likely to withhold relevant information about their mental state.

Of course, the vast majority of cases don’t involve such a dire threat to public safety. However, mental illnesses can affect people’s thoughts, mood, behaviour or the way they perceive what’s going on around them, so it’s important to have a clear and objective understanding of how the person’s mental state could interact with their role at work, especially in safety-critical occupations.

Reasonable adjustments

In many cases, it will not be necessary to make any changes to the person’s job. But in other cases, there may be some tasks or aspects of the job that could be problematic for someone with a mental health condition, or could even be exacerbating the psychological disorder. Insight into any aspects of the work that could be triggering or worsening the person’s mental health issue are vital both for the wellbeing of the person and the proper functioning of the business.

Ms Cameron notes that, just as reasonable adjustments are routinely made for people with a physical injury, illness or disability, the same goes for mental illness. Look at what the person can do, rather than what they can’t do, and talk with the person about any aspects of their role where alterations to their duties or re-allocation of certain tasks or revision of staffing arrangements could help them recover at work. 

For a person with a mental health condition, continuing in their job can be therapeutic, or at least far more beneficial than being off on sick leave, though in some cases time off work may be the best thing for everyone. 

Professional support

Regardless of whether the organisation has an employee assistance program, an employee with a mental illness should be encouraged to engage with the right professionals and get the help they need. An employer’s support in this can help a person recover and be a competent and productive employee. 

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