October 2013 is Mental Health Month in most Australian States and Territories: a campaign aimed at raising awareness about mental health issues, ahead of World Mental Health Day on 10 October 2013. Mental Health Month serves as an opportunity for employers to focus on mental health issues, and creating a safe working environment free of risks to both physical and mental wellbeing.

With experts advising that 45% of Australians will experience some form of mental illness in their lives, both awareness and adequate coping strategies are critical for employers.   It is not a question of setting the systems in place for when you might employ someone with mental illness: the chances are that you already do. 

Work health and safety (WHS) laws impose obligations on employers to ensure (so far as is reasonably practicable) the health and safety of workers and provide a workplace which does not expose workers to risks to their health and safety.  These obligations extend to both physical and mental health.  Increasingly, the State regulators of WHS laws (like WorkSafe in Victoria and WorkCover in NSW) are focussed on mental health issues.  For example, most State regulators have recently issued codes of practice or guidelines for dealing with workplace bullying.

Surprisingly, a report issued by Safe Work Australia this year found that the instance of accepted mental stress or illness workers compensation claims (Australia-wide)  actually decreased in the period from 2003-04 to 2010-11.  Although, of all mental stress/illness workers compensation claims made in 2010-11, only 68% were accepted, compared to a 90% acceptance rate for claims for physical illnesses injuries.  The Safe Work Australia report found that of all types of workers compensation claims made by employees, claims for mental illness or injury were the most expensive for employers.

It is important to remember that most Australian States and Territories exclude psychological injuries which arise from what might be broadly described as "reasonable management action" from the categories of compensable injuries under workers compensation law.  In most instances, if you have undertaken a performance management, restructure, promotion/demotion or termination process reasonably (and can demonstrate this) your insurer may have grounds to reject a claim for workers compensation payments for an injury which arose wholly or predominantly from that management action. 

Dealing with mental illness and workplace stress is a complex issue for employers because there are often a number of complicating factors at play, sometimes including an employee's own concealment of these types of illnesses, dealing with stigma and a tendency of managers to avoid dealing with mental illnesses in the same way as they might in relation to physical ailments.

A good starting point is to make sure that your policies and procedures (including your WHS and anti-discrimination policies) adequately address the possibility that employees may be impacted by mental illness in the workplace.  Providing training to your managers and staff about mental illness, having well-publicised Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP), and addressing health issues (and their causes) when they become apparent will also assist in minimising risks of a workers compensation or discrimination claims, or breaching WHS obligations.  Many EAP providers also provide corporate assistance and access to qualified professionals who can help you better understand mental health issues within your workforce.

If mental health is not already a focus in your workplace, Mental Health Month provides a great reason to start a conversation about this issue with your team, or with management. For more information, visit: http://www.mentalhealth.asn.au/well-being/campaigns/mental-health-month-nsw.html or http://www.mentalhealthvic.org.au/.