Disability service providers should have a workplace mental health policy

Posted 2 years ago by Anna Christian
Workplace mental health policies not only support disability workers, but also ensure that services can be provided consistently to people with disability. [Source: Shutterstock]
Workplace mental health policies not only support disability workers, but also ensure that services can be provided consistently to people with disability. [Source: Shutterstock]

OPINION – Five years ago when my consultancy was asked to write a workplace mental health policy for a client, it was an unusual concept in HR circles and perceived as risky business for many mainstream employers, who were reluctant to dabble in the mental health space.

At the same time, however, Australia was experiencing a steady rise in workers’ compensation claims involving mental health injuries. In 2018, when Safe Work Australia (SWA) released national guidance material called Work-related psychological health and safety: A systematic approach to meeting your duties, two things became clear. Firstly, employers have a legal responsibility to eliminate or minimise the risk of psychological injuries being caused by work. Secondly, employers needed to shift their thinking and start embracing conversations about mental health in the workplace.

SWA’s recommended “systematic approach” focuses on three key employer obligations: preventing harm, intervening early and supporting recovery. The first step, preventing harm, involves identifying and assessing the work-related hazards and risks, implementing effective control measures to mitigate those risks and consulting effectively with workers.

COVID-19 is a psychosocial hazard that initially no employer could have foreseen.

The pandemic has thrust the issue of work-related mental stress to the forefront for employers, particularly those in the health and social services sectors. Concerns around COVID-19 infection and the changes associated with public health orders have been intensely stressful for people with disability, their families, and their support workers.

Data released by Safe Work Australia in 2021 revealed that the majority of COVID-related worker’s compensation claims have been from workers in health and social care roles, with a significant number of those claims being for mental health impacts related to the virus.

A clear, well communicated workplace mental health policy is one example of an effective control measure that disability service providers can use to protect their workforce from the health and safety risks associated with workplace stress. It is also an essential tool for supporting recovery for those experiencing work related mental health conditions.

The purpose of a workplace mental health policy is to provide clear rules and guidance on how a business or organisation manages employee mental health. Putting this control measure in place supports managers and supervisors to understand and comply with relevant legislation and the ongoing actions that will contribute towards fostering a mentally healthy workplace culture. As with any workplace policy, it is important to provide training or information sessions to ensure that all staff are well informed.

A disability organisation’s strategy or approach to managing employee mental health is one of the main components that should be included in a workplace mental health policy. Other key components include the organisation’s commitment or charter, key roles and responsibilities, and supporting documentation.

In my opinion, the organisation’s strategy or approach should cover these key areas:

  • Identifying, assessing and controlling psychosocial hazards
  • Responding to disclosure, reporting incidents, investigating incidents
  • Mental health emergency management
  • Parameters for making reasonable adjustments to work
  • Supporting returning to work
  • Communication and consultation between managers and staff
  • Access to the mental health policy, organisational values, and other related policies such as the code of conduct
  • Education and training
  • Promotion and awareness
  • Providing support and resources
  • Monitoring, reviewing and improving the strategy

Providing emotional and psychological support to employees during difficult periods is critical for individual employees’ wellbeing and ensuring the continuity in the provision of safe, respectful care and support to people with disability.

Support starts with being able to have open conversations in the workplace about mental health and what people may be dealing with. It is also important for disability workers to be able to access a range of support resources, such as an employee assistance program or a mental health first aid officer or contact support officer.

Employers or HR managers who need help fostering a healthy workplace culture or tailoring a workplace mental health policy to suit the specific needs of their organisation can seek support from a professional HR and workplace relations advisor.

Anna Pannuzzo is Director of WorkPlacePLUS, Australia’s leading workplace investigation and HR consultancy supporting the health and community care sectors. With 25+ years of senior HR management experience, Anna provides organisations with practical solutions to manage complex workplace issues. She is degree-qualified and a certified professional member of several highly regarded industry associations, including Australian HR Institute (AHRI) and the Australasian Association of Workplace Investigators. Anna presents regularly at industry events and trainings, and has provided expert advice on ABC Radio National’s ‘This Working Life’. Her nursing background provides a unique insight to the HR challenges facing many employers in the health and disability sector.

For more information, please visit WorkPlacePLUS.