4. Creating a safe and healthy workplace for all

2010 Workers with Mental Illness: a Practical Guide for Managers

back to index page

4. Creating a safe and healthy workplace for all


The most effective way to attract and support competent and productive workers is to ensure a healthy and safe work environment for everyone including workers with mental illness.

Research strongly suggests that diverse workplaces that offer non-discriminatory employment practices and equitable human resource management policies result in improved performance.[16]

Developing long-term strategies in the organisation is most effective when coupled with direct services that assist workers who require support and reasonable adjustments in the workplace.

Further information: Chapter 3 – Managing Mental Illness in the Workplace.

Some characteristics of a healthy and safe workplace:

  • professional development is supported and encouraged
  • obstacles to optimum mental health are identified and removed
  • diversity is viewed as an organisation advantage
  • staff turnover and sick/stress leave is low
  • staff loyalty is high
  • workers are productive members of a team.

4.1 Commitment to a strategy for creating a healthy working environment

A key component to the success of creating a safe and healthy work environment is commitment and awareness. This can be demonstrated throughout the organisation by:

  • commitment from senior managers and other senior staff to develop a healthy working environment through mission statements and policies
  • managers demonstrating their commitment by implementing the strategies
  • making all staff aware of your managerial commitment to having a healthy and safe working environment.

A safe and healthy workplace culture has many benefits such as:

  • promoting staff loyalty and pride
  • generating positive views about the business – both by workers and clients/customers
  • becoming a highly sought after work environment when recruiting new staff
  • greatly improving productivity.

Consulting with workers

In terms of mental health, it is important to involve workers and their representatives in strategies and policies related to OHS, risk management and mental illness. Not only is consulting with workers required under OHS law, it also makes good sense in creating a safe and healthy workplace.

4.2 Identify the hazards, assess the risks and implement controls to minimise the risks

Assess the work and workplace characteristics to identify whether it is a healthy and safe work environment or one that could create or contribute to poor mental health.

Possible mental health hazards to assess

Stress is a major contributing factor to mental health issues in the workplace. There are eight clear risk factors:

  1. high demand (work overload)
  2. low support from co-workers and supervisors
  3. lack of control
  4. poorly defined roles
  5. poorly managed relationships and conflict
  6. poor change participation
  7. lack of recognition and reward
  8. organisational injustice.[17]

Bullying and harassment in the workplace can greatly affect a person’s mental health. Bullying and harassment can take the form of:

  • abusive behaviour or language
  • unfair or excessive criticism
  • purposely ignoring the worker’s point of view
  • tactless remarks or actions which put down the person
  • malicious rumours.

Definition of bullying and harassment

“Workplace bullying is repeated, unreasonable behaviour directed towards a person or group of persons at a workplace, which creates a risk to health and safety.”

‘Repeated’ means persistent or ongoing behaviour, not the specific type of behaviour, which may vary.

‘Unreasonable behaviour’ means behaviour that a reasonable person, having regard to the circumstances, would expect to victimise, humiliate, undermine or threaten.

‘Risk to health and safety’ means risk to the emotional, mental or physical health of the person(s) in the workplace.

“Unlawful harassment occurs when someone is made to feel intimidated, insulted or humiliated because of their race, colour, national or ethnic origin; sex; disability; sexual preference; or some other characteristic specified under discrimination or human rights legislation. It can also happen if someone is working in a 'hostile' – or intimidating – environment.”

(Source: Comcare (2006) Bullying in the Workplace: A Guide to Prevention for Managers and Supervisors; Australian Human Rights Commission (2006) Good Practice, Good Business: Eliminating Discrimination & Harassment in the Workplace; Fact Sheet: What is Workplace Discrimination & Harassment?).


Workplace trauma

In some workplaces, there are risks of one-off or cumulative incidents that are severe and traumatic for workers and contribute to post-traumatic stress disorders or other mental illness. These include workers dealing with armed robberies, violent attacks, catastrophes or emergencies.

Assessment of workplace characteristics

Assessment of work and workplace characteristics and risks to mental health may include:

In relation to psychological injury claims, work pressure accounts for around half of all claims and harassment and bullying for one quarter of claims.
(Source: Australian Public Service Commission (2006) Turned up and Tuned In: A Manager’s Guide to Maximising Staff Attendance)
  • a review of absences to identify any patterns and trends
  • a review of policies, such as those relating to bullying and harassment, dealing with emergencies, OHS and equal employment opportunity, to determine their effectiveness in the workplace
  • allowing workers to provide feedback about their immediate managers and the management of the organisation, such as:
    • what they value about the organisation
    • what helps them within their role and the organisation
    • what changes they would like to happen
    • what they find frustrating about their role, the organisation and, if appropriate, their manager
  • an audit to assess the risks related to mental health in the same way as you would assess the risks from chemicals or other safety risks.

4.3 Proactive measures to achieve a healthy and safe workplace

Some key measures to help create a healthy and safe workplace and improve mental health include:

  • having effective policies and procedures (see section 4.3.1)
  • offering flexible working arrangements (see section 4.3.2)
  • developing mentoring and peer support systems (see section 4.3.3)
  • providing access to counselling services and/or specialist support groups (see section 4.3.4)
  • developing a greater understanding through education and training (see section 4.3.5)
  • ensuring safe and healthy work conditions (see section 4.3.6).

4.3.1 Effective policies and procedures

It is important to have an effective foundation of policies and procedures to outline your commitment to providing a safe and healthy workplace.

Key policies to develop and review include:

  • an overarching policy with a commitment to providing a safe and healthy workplace
  • a policy which addresses managing mental illness issues in the workplace and deals with matters such as consultation, confidentiality and training
  • broad equity and non-discrimination policies, including disability and mental health
  • a policy related to harassment and bullying (or include this in an OHS or equity policy)
  • a policy to enable feedback
  • policies and procedures for providing reasonable adjustments so that requests are dealt with promptly, fairly and appropriately.

Other policies and procedures, which are relevant to developing a safe and healthy workplace, include policies that balance identification of risk and supporting workers in the following areas:

  • performance management
  • grievances
  • occupational aggression and violence
  • drugs and alcohol in the workplace
  • hazard identification and reporting systems
  • emergency incidents, such as how to deal with extreme events (e.g. armed robbery, death or serious accident in the workplace) including measures to support the mental health of workers.

4.3.2 Flexible workplaces

As stated in Section 3.2 Reasonable adjustments, the adoption of broader strategies, like flexible workplace policies frequently benefits all workers as well as the organisation.

Examples of flexible workplace practices include:

  • variable start and finish times and days worked, provided the core business hours and overall fortnightly or monthly hours are worked and essential business needs are met
  • working from home, as long as the allocated tasks are met and core meetings and events are attended
  • ability to work part-time
  • discretionary leave where additional sick leave provisions are made available to the worker
  • being willing to change work tasks, demands and timeframes
  • designing jobs to include where possible variation and flexibility to reduce repetitive and monotonous work
  • allowing workers to arrange their work so they are able to regulate their tasks to meet work demands.

Having a range of flexible work practices can result in:

  • improving your ability to attract skilled and motivated workers
  • recognition as an 'employer of choice' with a competitive edge in recruiting
  • creating greater staff loyalty and higher return on training investment
  • increased trust and respect
  • minimised stress levels and improved morale and commitment
  • a better match between peaks and troughs in workloads and staffing
  • minimised absence from work and staff turnover
  • increased management skills and finding creative ways to work
  • improved productivity
  • potential for improved OHS performance
  • enhanced compliance with discrimination and workplace relations laws.[18]

4.3.3 Mentoring and peer support systems

“EAP (Employee Assistance Program) is brilliant for me. They are very professional and quick in assessing my needs. My employer has never had a problem with me ringing them during work time if I felt my anxiety was becoming an issue. It has been a fabulous safety net when I’m having problems and it’s really reassuring that my information is kept private and confidential.”

Sarah, an employee with an anxiety disorder

Some managers have found mentoring or peer support systems have had a positive impact on their workplaces. Mentoring is when another worker or appropriate external person with specific skills and abilities (a ‘mentor) helps a worker to build up their skills, abilities and confidence in the workplace.

4.3.4 Access to counselling services and/or specialist support groups

Many managers have developed formal partnerships with workplace counselling services, often called an Employee Assistance Program.

Such partnerships enable ready access to counselling services for workers. The benefits for the workplace and the worker include:

For the manager:

  • increased productivity, worker efficiency and minimised absence from work
  • effectively and promptly addressing issues which may otherwise affect productivity.

For the worker:

  • ready access to a support service that is provided by trained professionals
  • information is kept private and confidential
  • does not cause major disruption to work.

4.3.5 Develop greater understanding through education and training

A key strategy in creating a healthy and safe work environment for all workers is to provide information and training for staff. This can cover a number of different areas, such as:

  • mental health awareness training
  • bullying and harassment
  • stress management
  • communication skills
  • job specific training
  • diversity and disability awareness training
  • OHS in the workplace
  • training for managers in competencies for preventing occupational stress in the workplace.

Workers with mental illness will be more likely to trust their manager and colleagues if the workplace has a commitment to equal employment opportunities, an understanding about the reality of mental illness and a willingness to make reasonable adjustments.

Further information: Chapter 2 – Understanding Mental Illness; Chapter 4 – Creating a Safe and Healthy Workplace.

4.3.6 Safe and healthy work conditions

Providing safe and healthy work conditions benefits all workers and minimises the risk of or exacerbation of mental illness in the workplace. Some examples include:

  • regular rest breaks
  • limits on overtime or workload
  • breaks between shifts
  • flexible work hours, such as time off in-lieu, ability to swap shifts or rostered days off
  • ability to work part-time
  • study leave or professional development
  • effective grievance and conflict resolution procedures
  • workplace change consultation provisions.


[16] Stephens M & Caird B (2000) Countering Stigma and Discrimination, Organisational Policy Guidelines for the Public Sector. Mental Health Foundation, Australia.
[17] Workplace Health and Safety Queensland (2008) Occupational Stress Tip Sheets – Tip Sheet 4 – Risk factors for occupational stress.
[18] Jobaccess website: How to provide a flexible workplace