Statistics show that men take their own lives at four times the rate of women, with five men dying, on average, each day.
Job stress has been associated with increased suicide among men, so it’s important to heighten awareness of preventable men’s health problems to enable early detection and treatment before things seem unmanageable.
As employment lawyers, we all too often see people who have been pushed to the brink of their mental health at work. Both employers and employees need to get better at spotting the signs of stress, which can lead to a burnout or cause or worsen an existing mental illness.
John, 55, Executive Manager*
Dressed neatly in a suit and tie, John, an executive manager, had come well prepared for our meeting and was keen to be heard.
He spoke confidently, but was rambling and scattered. Several times I had to interject and request that he calm down so I could get a grasp on what had happened, but he continued to struggle to answer my questions and couldn’t seem to focus.
I soon learned, after a couple more interruptions to get him to slow down, that a week earlier, without warning, he was pulled into a meeting with his employer and told that he was being put on a performance improvement plan. He claimed the targets he was being expected to meet were unrealistic and unfair – not just because this has come out of the blue, but because he had been diligently working for his employer for more than 15 years.
He claimed to have been consistently performing tasks outside of his job description and worked long hours over and above what he was paid. He was stressed and run down, and despite requests for more resources, they were repeatedly ignored.
He also felt like he was being unfairly penalised because of a few shortcomings in his work. While he acknowledged that he had dropped the ball in some areas, he stressed there weren’t enough hours in the day to complete any more tasks, hence the reason he was sitting before me in a bad way.
On top of all this, he has also been diagnosed with anxiety and depression.
What are your rights at work around mental health?
The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates that 45% of Australians between the ages of 16 and 85 will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime. Yet few employees with mental health conditions are aware they have a number of rights.
The right to a safe workplace
An employer owes an employee a duty to provide safe systems of work and avoid foreseeable risks of injury. This includes a duty to take reasonable care to avoid any foreseeable risk of psychiatric injury.
Recently, the Supreme Court of Victoria found that that an abattoir and meat processing business had breached its duty of care to an employee who suffered a psychiatric injury because of his workload.
The employee worked long hours, and was on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. He made a number of complaints about the lack of support and staff shortages and collapsed twice at work from stress and exhaustion.
If you feel that you are suffering from excessive stress associated with your work, you can speak up. Speak to your doctor, and tell your employer. It is unlawful for an employer to treat you adversely because you have complained about a workplace safety issue (such as an excessive workload) or because you have a mental illness.
The right not to be discriminated against
If you have a mental illness, regardless of whether it developed as a result of work stress, you also have rights under anti-discrimination laws.
State and federal legislation makes it unlawful for an employer to treat discriminate against an employee because the employee has a disability. Disability is interpreted broadly and includes a wide range of illnesses or injuries, including psychological conditions.
Employers also have obligations to make reasonable adjustments for a person with a disability. Reasonable adjustments are essentially changes to a job which help the employee perform their duties. The type of adjustments that will be reasonable will depend on the circumstances but could include things like:
- flexible work arrangements, like a change to working hours or the ability to work part time
- changing the work location, such as a work from home arrangement or an office that is in a quieter location
- modifying duties
- allowing extra time to complete jobs or tasks, or
- making provisions for regular short breaks.
If you have been diagnosed with a mental illness, speak to your doctor about what your job entails and seek their guidance as to whether there are any reasonable adjustments that should be made to your job for health reasons.
Other resources include:
Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467 for 24-hour Australian counselling services.
Beyondblue 1300 22 4636 for 24-hour phone support, online chat, resources and apps.
Mindout for mental health and suicide support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people.
Headspace for online counselling for young people.
*Name and other details have been changed to protect the identity of our client