The pitfalls of managing employees with mental health issues and what employers must do

Sadly, mental illness affects a high proportion of the Australian population, with Beyond Blue 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? And here’s a question – is it any of our business? 

HR Tactics HR Consultant Brisbane - The Pitfalls of Managing Employees with mental health issues and what Employers must do.

It’s not always easy to ascertain whether an employee has a mental illness.  

  • Employees don’t 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.
  • And then there’s Privacy and anti-discrimination legislation which may also prevent us, employers and managers, asking about possible medical conditions.

Despite these restrictions, an employee’s mental health condition will be relevant to you, the employer, if it affects:

  1. Safety in the workplace, or
  2. The employee’s ability to perform those inherent requirements of their role.

So when you or one of your managers notice an employee exhibiting behaviour that would fit the description of misconduct or underperformance — and that could be something like uncharacteristic lateness, a general lack of focus which is resulting in poor quality of work or disrespect – the “knee-jerk” reaction can often be to performance manage or discipline your employee. However, it’s essential that as soon as you notice changes in behaviour, you show support for the employee early on. And by support here I mean checking in with them to discuss the change in behaviour that you’ve noticed. The Australian Human Rights Commission have actually released a really helpful guide “Workers With Mental Illness: a Practical Guide for Managers”, which urges employers when noticing changes in behaviour, to show support for employees early on so this is now the expectation.

This doesn’t, by any means, mean you aren’t entitled to apply your standard performance management processes to all employees where you have a legitimate concern about their performance. But it is essential to take into account personal circumstances and whether a mental illness may be contributing to that poor performance.

So in summary, the key question you, the employer, must ask before commencing performance management processes or disciplinary action is whether the underperformance or misconduct is caused by a mental health condition, or is it simply underperformance or misconduct?

So, I’ll leave you with two key points of advice

  1. Discussion with the employee about their actions is always advisable before making a decision to dismiss.
  2. Afford him or her procedural fairness by giving them an opportunity to explain to you what their mental state was.

This area really is tricky and it’s easy to get tripped up not following proper processes so if you’re in doubt, reach out to us here at HR Tactics.

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This information was provided with the intention of helping you find more clarity, confidence and peace of mind as you navigate your own journey as an employer. I would love to hear your thoughts on this, and if you think someone else would enjoy it please feel free to share it on.


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About The Author
Jackie Strachan

Jackie Strachan

Jackie’s passion for creating better Human Resources outcomes stems from over 20 years’ experience in the field and a drive for finding innovative solutions.
Her HR career has seen her hold both operational and strategic HR management roles across a vast array of industry sectors including retail, financial services, child protection, professional services, dental, state emergency services, Department of Justice, agency recruitment and IT.
Combining her experience in each specialised area of Human Resources (such as learning & development, recruitment, WHS and employee relations etc), Jackie leads HR Tactics with an industry-respected foundation of knowledge.