Workplace mental health must be given priority or else

Company directors and business owners need to start looking at the impact of mental health issues in the workplace or face possible action against them personally for breach of duty of care or other forms of damages.

Recent Federal Court cases have raised serious questions around when directors may find themselves facing personal penalties. It appears directors may be personally liable for issues in the workplace even if their company does not break any laws. If the company is found to be at risk of breaking any laws, then directors and business owners could be in trouble.

These recent cases mark quite a change in the way directors, owners and managers are seen by the courts.

Mental health is a serious issue in the workplace and becoming a bigger issue for businesses. The increased pressure of cost cutting and doing more with less, is placing significant strain, stress and pressure on staff across the country.

Many Australian businesses are competing against multi-nationals who are able to source cheaper labour overseas and invest in technology to standardize and computerise activities normally undertaken by humans. As a result, jobs are being lost, outsourced and off-shored. This level of change, pressure and disruption in the workplace combined with more challenging front line issues is creating significant stress for workers and workplaces generally.

It is no surprise that the presence of mental health issues in the workplace is on the rise.

While many companies have targets and programs to deal with workplace accidents and other issues such as bullying and harassment, most do not have programs to deal with mental health issues. Mental health issues silently affect absenteeism, productivity, morale, customer service and many other areas of a business. In affect, they cause significant financial loss.

Unless companies start taking workplace mental health seriously, we are going to see a rise in the number of claims against directors and business owners from staff who feel their mental health has been damaged due to poor workplace practices or a lack of regard for the mental health of staff in the workplace. Managers are not trained to deal with mental health issues, they are trained to be managers and administrators. Their focus is generally operational and business related.

In the last few years, we have worked with many organisations to develop and implement programs to address and manage mental issues in the workplace. Some of these have included organisations with large contingents of front line staff who are required to deal with angry and stressed members of the general public. Others include businesses where there is a fair degree of pressure, particularly sales environments.

Our work involves assisting organisations to identify the risks, implement programs, train managers and establish systems to enable monitoring and action. Organisations must start incorporating mental health into their corporate wellness programs and implementing mental health management planning and support systems into their workplace strategies to support staff at all levels. If they don’t directors and business owners may find themselves losing their homes or even worse, facing jail time. Mental health issues are just as serious as physical health issues, it is just that they can be a bit more difficult to recognise.

Pedro Diaz, Founder and CEO, Mental Health Recovery Institute

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