Sadly, mental illness affects a high proportion of the Australian population, with BeyondBlue reporting that 45% of the Australian population will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime. As employers, how do we deal with mental illness in our workforce? Furthermore, is it any of our business?

Employees do not always disclose a mental illness voluntarily, and nor are they legally obliged to do so. Pre-employment medical assessments will not always disclose them unless the medical condition affects the inherent requirements of the relevant role.

Privacy and anti-discrimination legislation may also prevent employers asking about possible medical conditions. Despite these restrictions, an employee’s mental health condition will be relevant to an employer if it affects safety in the workplace, or the employee’s ability to perform the inherent requirements of their role.

When managers notice employees exhibiting behaviour that would fit the description of misconduct — whether that be uncharacteristic lateness, a general lack of focus resulting in poor work quality or disrespect, the “knee-jerk” reaction can often be to performance manage or discipline the employee. However, the Australian Human Rights Commission, in their helpful guide Workers With Mental Illness: a Practical Guide for Managers, urges employers when noticing changes in behaviour, to show support for employees early on.

While an employer is certainly entitled to apply their standard performance management system to all employees where they have a legitimate concern about their performance, it is important to take into account personal circumstances and whether a mental illness may be contributing to poor performance. Therefore, if an employee does disclose a mental health issue, it is advisable to only move to performance management as a last resort as it is possible performance management may only exacerbate the employee’s stress and anxiety levels.

The key question employers must ask before performance management is whether the underperformance or misconduct is caused by a mental health condition, or is it simply underperformance or misconduct? It is important to identify the reason for performance issues before taking any performance management or disciplinary action.

Various decisions in unfair dismissal matters and adverse action cases highlight the need for an employer to open a dialogue with an employee when mental illness is impacting an employee’s performance.

– Amber Chandler

Read more: Managing an Employee with Mental Health Issues – What You Need to Know

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