Mental health at work: 5 reasonable adjustments you can make for employees

5 min read  |   24 February, 2022   By Sarah Benstead

Two colleagues are sat at a table. The man is working on his laptop and is surrounded by two plants and a pencil pot.

Thanks to several high-profile campaigns by charities like Beyond Blue and ReachOut, mental health in the workplace is being given the recognition and support it rightly deserves.

In this article we're going to discuss the importance of mental health in the workplace, what reasonable adjustments look like and how you can put these into action. 

Mental health in the Australian workplace

There is still some way to go before the wider working world treats mental health on a par with physical health. However, more and more employers are taking on board its importance and making sure they take care of their staff's mental health.

Just like you would with someone who has a physical illness, employers can make adjustments in the workplace to help someone dealing with their mental health to continue to perform their role effectively.

As an overview, here are 5 reasonable adjustments you can make for employees suffering from mental health issues:

  • Reduced working hours
  • Workload adjustments
  • Changes to their working environment
  • Extra support from other staff
  • Encourage conversations and build a plan

The importance of mental health in the workplace 

The importance of maintaining good mental health cannot be underestimated. In Australia, mental health is the third biggest problem, after heart disease and cancer. At any time, around 45% of Australians aged between 16 and 85 will experience a mental illness, while one in five adults will experience a mental illness in any given year. This can include conditions such as anxiety, depression, stress or even more serious ones like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.

Taking care of staff mental health issues and supporting them through any difficulties isn’t just a sign you’re a good employer—it can actually be good for your business too. According to statistics, Australian businesses lose over $6.5 billion each year by failing to provide early intervention or treatment for employees with mental health conditions. 

A total of 3.2 days per worker are also lost each year through workplace stress. Stress-related compensation claims have doubled in recent years too—costing over $10 billion each year. And there’s no signs of that slowing down.

What is an employer's duty regarding mental health discrimination in the workplace?

As an employer, you have a legal duty to support people with mental health problems, as set out in the Fair Work Act 2009

The Act states it is an employer’s responsibility to ensure a disabled person—suffering substantial long-term impairment—has the same access to opportunities as a non-disabled person when it comes to keeping or gaining employment. And this applies to mental health as much as physical health.

What are reasonable adjustments to support mental health in the workplace? 

Adjustments are steps you can take, specific to a particular employee, so that employee can continue doing their job. Reasonable adjustments in the workplace are ones that are effective for the employee, and reasonable, not too costly or disruptive to the business.

As well as it being a legal requirement under the Fair Work Act 2009 for defined disabilities, it’s good practice for businesses to make adjustments for anyone affected by mental health or stress at work. This includes long-term and debilitating mental health.

Supporting employees with mental health issues can reduce sickness absence rates, increase staff retention and improve employee engagement—all things which have a positive impact on productivity.

5 reasonable adjustments you can make for mental illness

1. Working hours 

One of the easiest things you can do if you know someone to be struggling with mental health is to adjust their working patterns. 

This may involve offering flexible working, allowing for different start and finish times or allowing them to work from home if suitable. It could also include allowing them time off for appointments, spacing breaks differently or restructuring holiday time so it is spread more evenly throughout the year.

According to the CIPD, the top three benefits of investing in health and wellbeing, including flexible hours, are better employee engagement, a better working atmosphere and reduced sickness absence.

2. Managing staff workloads 

The top cause of stress-related absence at work is workload and management style.

As a responsible employer, you can help to support those with mental ill-health by assessing their workload. This might mean making adjustments to how much work you are expecting someone to do and assigning tasks to other staff members temporarily. It could also involve supervising the person in question more closely to assess the impact of their workload on them. 

Other support you could offer would be to help them prioritise their work or focus on a single task at a time so they’re not overwhelmed. You could also consider a job share to reduce the pressure on them. 

3. Physical changes to the working environment

The physical environment of your business may be impacting staff mental health. Do they work in an open plan office? Is it hard for them to concentrate with too much noise? What can you do about reducing noise and distractions?

It may be as simple as turning their desk around so they no longer have their back to other people, or it could be that they require their own office to work in. You might wish to consider creating a quiet space where they can take a break, reducing the pitch or volume of ringtones on phones or giving them more personal space.

4. Get staff talking about their mental health at work

Creating a buddy or mentoring system can help someone who is struggling at work. This can be a formal or informal process.

Offering staff increased training can also help deal with issues of workload and feeling overwhelmed by supporting them further in the job they were hired to do.

You can offer greater human interaction and constructive feedback, so employees know when they are doing a good job and feel valued. Holding debriefs after difficult calls, customers or situations can also help allay the concerns of someone dealing with mental health issues—particularly stress or anxiety.

You could also offer mediation between colleagues if they’re having difficulties talking about mental health at work. Why not consider setting up a mental health group where people can air their worries.

5. Encourage conversations and develop a plan

You should treat each employee flexibly and don’t assume all symptoms are the same for everyone. Different staff will react in different ways to situations. You also need to be honest and clear with staff if there are specific concerns, and ensure confidentiality to build trust.

Developing a plan to deal with mental health in the workplace is vital, both a specific plan to help an individual employee and a more overarching plan on how you deal with mental health in general.

Start by putting your people first

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Disclaimer: This document contains general information and is also not intended to constitute legal or taxation advice. If you need legal or taxation advice, we recommend you speak to a qualified adviser.


Author: Sarah Benstead

Sarah is a Product Marketing Specialist here at Breathe. Always innovating, she loves writing about product releases in an engaging & informative way. When she's not coming up with new ideas, she enjoys long walks with her dog, Clifford.

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