The below article was published in the Inside Retail August 2019 Edition.
Meeting workplace health and safety (WHS) obligations in the retail environment has traditionally been understood in terms of addressing physical hazards such as manual handling risks. However, WHS legislation specifically provides that ‘safety’ includes psychological safety. With mental illness being increasingly recognised in our community, now more than ever retail employers must proactively address psychological safety in their workplaces.
Of course, this is not just about managing legal risk – it is promoting productive and healthy workplace environments and cultures in which employees will thrive. While there are no magic bullet solutions to achieving this, we explore below seven practical ways to manage workplace mental health.
- Embrace mental health as a workplace issue
Treating mental health as private issue, and expecting employees to leave their mental health issues at the door before a day of interacting with customers is, at best, unrealistic; and at worst, could lead to exacerbating the employee’s condition, while potentially adversely impacting customer service.
Mental health is inherently a workplace issue. The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates that one in five Australians will experience a mental illness in any one year. With large and dynamic workforces, retail employers are likely to be engaging a significant number of employees with some form of mental health condition.
Further, the estimated cost of mental health conditions on Australian workplaces each year is $10.9 billion, overwhelmingly attributed to reduced productivity and increased absenteeism.
The first step to managing mental health in the workplace is acknowledging that it is a workplace issue, and having a commitment in the organisation to genuinely promote a mentally healthy working environment from the top down.
- Understand your obligations
It is key to understand your minimum legal obligations when it comes to employees with known or suspected mental health conditions.
WHS obligations require proactively identifying hazards and eliminating risks to psychological safety so far as is reasonably practicable, and to monitor the mental health of employees on an ongoing basis. This also requires avoiding repeated, unreasonable behaviour which creates a risk to health and safety – as bullying behaviours in the workplace are a common trigger for mental health conditions.
Serious breaches of WHS laws can result in criminal prosecution by the WHS regulator. More commonly, unaddressed mental health conditions which arise in/are contributed to by the workplace, result in workers’ compensation claims. Psychological claims are very difficult to manage, and rehabilitation is typically less likely than with physical claims.
Additionally, employers must not discriminate against an employee/prospective employee because they suffer from a mental illness (a disability), provided the employee can fulfil the inherent requirements of their role. An employee’s known mental illness may also require the employer to make reasonable adjustments to enable them to perform their role.
While it is crucial that employers understand these legal protections, an employer is still able to take reasonable management action against such employees, provided that such action is conducted appropriately.
- Proactive steps to create a mentally healthy workplace
Creating a mentally healthy workplace requires a holisitic approach. Management should lead by example in adopting mentally healthy work practices, and modelling appropriate workplace behaviours.
The following measures will further assist in establishing a mentally healthy workplace:
Having in place a Mental Health Policy confirming the organisation’s workplace mental health strategy;
- Educating all employees on appropriate workplace conduct and behaviour;
- Training managers on how to conduct reasonable management action;
- Training managers to identify mental health ‘red flags’;
- Encouraging employees to raise mental health hazards;
- Address concerns that are raised.
Additionally, where concerns exist that an employee is not well enough to fulfil the inherent requirements of their role, it is paramount that immediate action is taken to address these concerns, and reduce the risk that their condition is further exacerbated.
- Understand how to identify mental health “red flags”
While employers are not expected to diagnose or treat employees with any medical condition (physical or psychological), it is the obligation of employers to monitor the health of employees and to address any concerns as soon as they arise.
Managers in the retail industry, the eyes and ears of your organisation, should be trained to identify mental health “red flags”, including:
- Reduced productivity and/or performance;
- Changes in mood (unmotivated, isolated, withdrawn);
- Changes in behaviour (agitated, snappy, tearful);
- Changes in appearance (dishevelled, less attentive);
- Easily fatigued or unusually tired;
- Increased use of leave or patterns of absenteeism and lateness;
- Sudden disorganisation.
Arming your managers with an understanding of what mental health problems look like is key to monitoring health of employees on an ongoing basis, and can enable managers to effectively start the conversation with an employee about their wellbeing and fitness for work. This can be invaluable in improving the employee’s wellbeing, and correspondingly their productivity and performance.
- Start the conversation
Due to the continuing stigma in our community surrounding mental illness, there remains discomfort in asking employees about their mental health, for fear that it will exacerbate their condition and/or lead to risks of discrimination.
However, starting the conversation at an early stage not only reinforces trust between manager and team member; it can be very powerful in reducing the likelihood of the employee’s condition worsening.
Managers should approach these discussions with sensitivity, and understanding that each employee’s circumstances and vulnerabilities are unique. Noting that the employee’s behaviour/performance has changed, and simply asking “Are you ok?”, prior to adopting a more punitive process such as disciplinary action, can be a very powerful in assisting the employee to identify and address their mental health issues.
- Include mental health in your pre-employment processes
Asking the question around mental health shouldn’t be merely a reactive process. Employers should also ask the question pre-employment, in order to ascertain whether a prospective employee has any pre-existing injuries or conditions which could:
Prevent them from fulfilling the inherent requirements of the role; and/or
- Be exacerbated by performance of the role; and/or
- Put their health and safety at risk in the role.
This will assist the prospective employee to make an informed disclosure, and the employer to reduce the risk of unlawful discrimination, while also meeting WHS obligations. Ideally this should form part of pre-employment application documents so that the employer retains a written record of the candidate’s responses. Such responses can then be sensitively discussed at interview, and explored with specific reference to the inherent requirements of the role – for example, ‘are you confident working in a high-pressure environment engaging with members of the public?’
This will inform whether further information is needed to satisfy the employer as to whether the candidate can fulfil the inherent requirements of their role safely (eg confirmation from their treating practitioner).
Moreover, it will likely increase the individual’s prospects of meaningfully contributing to the workplace, if they are offered employment.
- Know your long-term options
While the law provides protections for employees with a mental illness, there is also recognition that an employer can take steps where an employee’s condition prevents them from fulfilling their role on an ongoing basis.
If an employee with a known mental illness fails to meet performance expectations, or they are unable to fulfil the inherent requirements of their role, on a continuing basis this can be addressed through reasonable management action with due consideration to the employee’s condition. Should performance issues persist, termination of employment may be necessary.
Of course, these decisions should not be made lightly, due to the risks of a potential discrimination or other post-termination claims. Employers should seek legal advice at an early stage to ensure that there is a valid basis for dismissal and a procedurally fair process is adopted to reduce these post-dismissal risks.
 Australian Bureau of Statistics, National Health Survey: First Results 2017-18
 PWC, (2014). Creating a mentally healthy workplace: Return on investment analysis