Education to Employment Education to Employment

Mental illness

Key facts

Key facts on mental illness

  • Mental illnesses are a varied group of conditions that primarily and significantly affect how a person feels, thinks, behaves, and/or interacts with other people
  • There is a huge range of type and severity of mental illness. It is a very broad category covering some very different conditions and affects
  • Another common term used is 'psychiatric disability'
  • A mental illness is not the same as a temporary mental health problem/s that may be experienced following a stressful life event
  • Mental illnesses have been identified as the third biggest health problem in Australia, after heart disease and cancer
  • Close to 1 in 5 Australians will have a mental illness in any year
  • A mental illness can affect anyone: from any social background, with any intelligence level, at any age, of any race or ethnic origin.
    Most people with a mental illness recover well with appropriate ongoing treatment and support. The vast majority of people with a mental illness are able to live independently (and often to work) in the community if given the opportunity and support to do so
  • Some major types of mental illness include:
    • Anxiety disorders: affect approximately 14% of Australians per year (eg. generalised anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, post traumatic stress disorder)
    • Mood disorders: affect approximately 9% of Australians per year (eg. depression; bipolar disorder)
    • Psychotic disorders: affect up to 3% of Australians per year (eg. schizophrenia, dissociative disorder)

To find out more about types of mental illness refer to the Australian Human Rights Commission's Workers with Mental Illness: A Practical Guide for Managers. You can get a copy from the Commission or check it out on their website.

Affects and adjustments at work

Common affects of mental illness at work

Remember! No two people with the same disability experience the same affects at work!

Employees with disability are not likely to have all the listed disability features OR affects at work! Most people have just a few of those listed; you'll only know by asking the person directly.

Here are some examples of how an employee with a mental illness may be affected at work. They may have difficulties with:

  • Thinking processes, eg: concentration, focus, memory, processing information and forming clear thoughts
  • Organising and planning work tasks, eg: meeting deadlines, performing certain types of tasks, managing multiple tasks, managing a high volume workload and/or arising priority tasks
  • Social interactions with co-workers eg: managing group work or meeting situations; coping with any social tensions in the workplace, coping with apparent criticism from others
  • Impact of physical symptoms of the condition and/or side effects of any medication, eg: blurred vision; drowsiness; sleeplessness; pain; tremors; heart attack-like symptoms
  • Managing emotions, eg: high levels of anxiety, frustration, restlessness and/or low mood, energy or lack of motivation
  • Unexpected absences from work due to affect of mental illness and/or medication side effects.

Possible workplace adjustments for people with mental illness

The following examples of workplace adjustments are only examples! These examples will not suit everybody.

In each case the best supports in the workplace can only be discovered through conversations between employer, employee and, if needed, a disability specific employment specialist.

Some examples of workplace adjustments that have been used for people with a mental illness:

  • Allowing the worker to use a portable CD player or MP3 player as a tool for minimising distractions and industrial noise and increasing concentration
  • Providing access to an external provider such as an Employee Assistance Program or a Disability Employment Service provider to assist the worker with thought processing strategies in the workplace
  • Providing flexible work arrangements, such as allowing short breaks from work, and flexible start times to enable the worker to start work at their most productive time
  • Developing a written plan of action with the worker that features achievable tasks with set times for completion
  • Setting up informal support meetings to discuss progress, being careful not to treat these meetings as 'performance' meetings. For example:
    • Clearly outline the purpose of the meeting at the beginning and end of the meeting
    • Meet at an informal location, eg: coffee shop, quiet office area, etc
    • If you intend to take notes, let the person know and explain why you are taking notes
    • Be aware of your body language. You are more likely to give the impression of a formal or contentious meeting if you have folded arms and legs, limited eye contact and sitting behind a desk
  • Suggesting the use of a personal diary (hard copy or electronic), personal organiser or mobile phone reminder to keep track of required tasks and key dates for their completion
  • If the worker is required to regularly meet with colleagues, business representatives or the general public, swapping these tasks with less 'social' activities
  • Providing flexible work options, particularly when the person is unwell, such as part-time work, use of annual or sick leave to structure a rest day after two or three days consecutive work
  • Breaking up more demanding tasks with interludes of less strenuous tasks.

These examples are adapted from the Australian Human Rights Commission's recent resource called Workers with a Mental Illness: A Practical Guide for Managers. It's a good idea to check out this publication for the many more suggestions of workplace adjustments to address particular affects of mental illness at work.

Tips for communicating with people with mental illness

  • Let the person know that you are keen to work together to find practical strategies that will allow them to perform their work duties and be a part of the workplace
  • Keep questions about the person's mental illness to the affects at work and what supports can be put in place to accommodate the affects, rather than questions about prognosis, how the person got the illness and/or any other irrelevant personal details
  • Offer discretion and protection of the person's privacy, you may be the only person in the workplace to know the employee has a mental illness
  • Check that the person has understood what has been said. Be prepared to repeat what you have said using different words
  • Give plenty of advance notice and information about any upcoming changes in the workplace
  • Use email more frequently to confirm verbal discussions, instructions and/or new information. This gives the employee the opportunity to process the information with extra time and/or return to the information whenever they need to refer to it in the future
  • Avoid comments indicating that the person is especially weak, fragile or unfit. To find out what words work well when talking about mental illness in the workplace, check out the Australian Human Rights Commission's publication called Workers with a Mental Illness: a Practical Guide for Manager's.