Government statistics indicate that one-in-five Australian adults will experience a mental illness in any given year, and around 45% of Australians aged between 16 and 85 will experience a mental illness at some point in their life. Mental illness is one of the biggest health issues in the Australian community – and therefore, mental health is a major issue for you as an employer. Your business has an obligation to take reasonably practicable steps to ensure the health and wellbeing of its workers and other people impacted by your business, e.g. contractors, volunteers or apprentices. This includes taking steps to minimise the risk of causing or aggravating mental illness or mental health problems and to minimise the risk of someone with a mental illness causing harm to anyone else in your workplace. Mental illness is a health problem that affects how a person thinks, behaves and interacts with other people. There are many different types of mental illnesses with varying degrees of severity. The most common mental illnesses include:
  • depression and bipolar disorder;
  • anxiety;
  • personality disorders, e.g. obsessive compulsive disorder;
  • eating disorders, e.g. bulimia; and
  • psychotic disorders, e.g. schizophrenia.
A ‘mental health problem’ is similar to a mental illness but may refer to a less severe issue. What causes mental illness? There are often complex factors that lead to the development of a mental illness, including factors in the workplace that may have the potential to cause or exacerbate mental illness. At an organisational level, there may be indicators that work-related stress and mental health issues are endemic in the workplace, including unplanned absences and excessive sick leave; workers who appear withdrawn and perform poorly. Common symptoms of mental illness include:
  • physical symptoms, e.g. pain, blurred vision, fatigue;
  • absence from work; and
  • emotional symptoms, e.g. frustration, anger, restlessness, anxiety or low mood.
To comply with your safety obligations, you need to undertake a risk assessment of your workplace to identify the prevalence of risks to the mental health of your workers. A risk assessment for mental illness in your workplace can be performed in a number of ways. A survey of your workers could be a quick and accurate way of assessing their work situation. You may also consider engaging an external consultant to audit the business. If using a survey, ensure it is confidential and asks the workers questions about their level of satisfaction with the business, including questions about whether deadlines are realistic, work hours are too long, breaks are long enough, who decides what they do and when, do they get feedback about their performance? Providing your workers with sufficient communication and resources is essential to ensure they can competently undertake their role without fear or uncertainty. A lack of communication and resources can lead to stress, which is a major contributor to mental illness. Is your business prepared to handle mental illness issues? Are your managers and other workers able to understand and identify the early signs of anxiety and depression? Does your workplace have an employee assistance program (EAP) or a peer support program or mentoring to assist in managing mental health issues? Does your workplace foster a climate of respect and resilience to support those with mental illness? It is important to note that the impact of a mental illness in one worker may affect your other workers in some circumstances. For example, if the worker with mental illness is not performing at their normal level or is absent for extended periods, other staff may become stressed and overworked. The risk of mental health issues in your workplace can be reduced by health and wellbeing programs because they often lead to improved morale and higher levels of job satisfaction. If you already have informal health programs or fitness groups in operation, find out how these can be incorporated into an overall company wellbeing program. Workers’ compensation for mental illness The development or aggravation of significant mental illness at work can lead to workers’ compensation claims by affected workers. A worker can make a claim for damages alleging the business negligently caused or aggravated a mental illness resulting in significant payments of compensation as well as increases in your company’s insurance premiums. It is important that you take all reasonable steps to prevent mental illness in the workplace to avoid these types of claims.

Top stories for Mental Health


Your questions answered: How should we approach an employee who appears depressed?

Mental Health

Q I have a question about our responsibility as an employer if you notice that an employee may be suffering with depression that is not related to work. I don’t know if we should direct him to seek medical/psychological help. […]

By Portner Press on January 22nd, 2020

Your questions answered: Can we request that our worker sees a doctor or takes personal leave?

Mental Health

Q Our worker has a disclosed health issue (which he previously took extended leave for) as well as a suspected mental health concern potentially related to work stress. The worker is physically able to perform his duties, however we are […]

By Portner Press on September 20th, 2019

Your questions answered: Is mental illness recorded as a lost-time injury?

Mental Health

Q Pending a final medical tribunal review, it looks like we have a work-related mental illness case. The injured person has been off work and receiving medical treatment for a number of months now. My question is classifying this illness. […]

By Portner Press on September 19th, 2019

Are your workers NOT ok?

Mental Health

Employers can do more to ensure colleagues feel connected at work. That is what R U OK has said in its announcement of the results of its 2019 Australian Workplace Psychological Safety Survey. Out of 1093 Australian employees it surveyed, […]

By Portner Press on May 28th, 2019

What can you do if a job candidate lies about their health?

Mental Health

When recruiting, employers will commonly ask workers about their health status. But what happens if they are not honest? The case of Sills v State of NSW (2018) highlights what can happen when an undisclosed pre-existing injury or illness becomes […]

By Portner Press on May 14th, 2019

NSW Government offers training to help employers deal with mental health

Mental Health

Support for businesses and workers to develop strategies to manage their mental health in the workplace has been further boosted by an initiative from the NSW Government...

By Portner Press on March 28th, 2019

Worker wins comp for disorganised performance appraisal

Mental Health

In Dinning v Westpac Banking Corporation (2019), the NSW Workers’ Compensation Commission found that poorly executed performance management was to blame for a worker’s psychological injury.

By Portner Press on February 26th, 2019

When CAN’T a doctor decide if a worker is unfit to work?

Mental Health

Employers don’t have the right to rely on their preferred medical evidence when deciding whether to dismiss an ill or injured worker.

By Portner Press on February 19th, 2019

Asperger’s is a health and safety concern, court finds

Employee health & wellbeing

  Employees will often disclose illnesses or injuries when they are subject to performance management, particularly if they are fearful of losing their income. However, an employer should not assume that such a disclosure is an attempt to excuse poor […]

By Portner Press on January 11th, 2019

Mental Health Week this week

Mental Health

Now is a good time for employers to take stock of mental health in their workplaces and consider the welfare of employees who may be suffering with mental illness.

By Portner Press on October 9th, 2018