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17 September 2019

How do I manage an on-going mental health issue of a staff member?

Most people who have ongoing mental health conditions can continue to work successfully without support, or with only minimal support.

This article is the third part of the three-step process Recognise, Relate and Respond, to help navigate the management of mental health issues at work.

Most people who have ongoing mental health conditions can continue to work successfully without support, or with only minimal support. It is discriminatory to make assumptions about people’s capabilities, their potential for promotion, or the amount of sick leave they are likely to need, on the basis of their condition.

People with mental health conditions should be treated in exactly the same way as any other member of staff unless they ask for help or demonstrate clear signs through their performance or behaviour that help is needed.

Try to enable the employee to continue to contribute to the organisation for as long as possible.

Other positive steps to take:

  • focus on achievements and successes, not on the health issue
  • encourage the person to assess his or her own performance – if there have been any changes, establish why
  • consider how existing adjustments might be made more effective, for example, part-time working, job-sharing or working from home
  • establish whether medical advice is needed – from the person’s GP or another health professional.

What are some strategies to help people cope?

Most people are encouraged to develop coping strategies as part of their care. This often involves noting signs of a possible relapse and taking action to avoid it, like cutting down on work or social activity, foregoing alcohol, or taking exercise.

How do I make adjustments in the workplace to help my employee?

Many people with physical disabilities may require physical aids or structural changes to the workplace. Similarly, people with mental health issues can require social and organisational adjustments.

These adjustments are generally changes in the way things have traditionally been done. Permitting someone with a mental illness to work flexible hours, for example, provides access to employment just as a ramp does for an individual who uses a wheelchair.

Adjustment is not preferential treatment. The fact that some of your employees may see adjustment as preferential treatment represents a challenge for some employers. Education and discussion can help wrong assumptions.

What type of adjustments can I make as an employer?

The following are some examples of potential adjustments for people with mental health issues that cover three key areas of the workplace: supportpolicy and attitudes.


Support strategies that respond to the specific needs of the individual employee are the most effective.

  • Assign the employee to a supervisor who is supportive.
  • Designate a co-worker to act as a peer support or advocate.
  • Provide individualised training for specific tasks.
  • Provide detailed explanations of job duties, responsibilities, and expectations. Explanations may need to be both oral and written.
  • Make written agreements for evaluations, short-term performance reviews, time management, and handling problems.


Human resource principles that are positive and constructive provide a strong foundation for adjustments.

  • Permit telephone calls during work hours to supportive individuals.
  • Provide a private work area for individuals who are easily distracted.
  • Permit a self-paced workload.
  • Allow the use of sick leave for emotional as well as physical illness.
  • Allow people to work at home when possible.
  • Allow workers to shift work hours for medical appointments, particularly recurring appointments such as those for a psychiatrist or therapist.
  • Allow overtime to be banked for use in case of illness.
  • Advance additional paid or unpaid leave during hospitalisation.
  • Create a job-sharing policy.
  • Keep a position open and provide backup coverage during an extended leave.


An accepting organisational climate also provides support for adjustments.

  • Offer management training to supervisors to reinforce or improve their ability to provide clear direction and constructive feedback.
  • Educate managers about the law and human resources policies so they can have frank discussions with employees about known disabilities and adjustments.
  • Encourage supervisors to offer praise and positive reinforcement.
  • Provide sensitivity training for co-workers about mental illness.
  • Dispel myths by educating staff about the causes, treatment and experience of mental illness.

How can I help my employees prevent stress?

You can improve your work environment to help prevent people getting stressed.

  • Make your physical work environment as comfortable to work in as possible.
  • Discuss workload and organisation of work with your employees. Set realistic targets.
  • Communicate regularly with your employees.
  • Check your employees see how their work fits in with the organisation’s overall aims and objectives so they can see a real purpose to their work.
  • Ensure your staff know about your employee assistance programmes (EAP) and any peer support systems you have.
  • Encourage healthy living – organise events with sports, offer exercise options at work, provide healthy food if you have a staff café or canteen.
  • Lead by example – be a good role model by looking after your own health and wellbeing.

How can I improve my knowledge about mental health in the workplace?

Mental health awareness training will help you understand mental health conditions and enable managers and colleagues to support staff experiencing such difficulties. MH101 is a mental health learning programme developed to recognise, relate and respond to people experiencing mental illness. Leading Wellbeing at Work is focused on understanding and supporting staff experiencing mental health challenges in the workplace.

Who can support me as an employer?

Workwise has offices around the country that offer support to employers and to employees who have experienced mental health conditions. We have a successful track record in supporting people to return to work and in supporting them to be effective long-term employees. Many people require only minimal support once they have been given the opportunity to work.

What can I do if I’m interested in recruiting people with mental health problems?

If you are interested specifically in recruiting people with mental health problems, there are many positive steps you can take. Here are a few recruitment ideas that may relate directly to people with a mental health condition.

  • When describing the duties of the job, give a clear, precise description including information about the physical and social environment, workload, priorities, and the amount of supervision.
  • Applicants may appear to be overqualified on their resume. They may have a reason for what appears to be changing or backtracking in their career path. Gaps in work history may indicate periods of inability to work.
  • Work experience may be gained not only in paid employment, but also with volunteer work, or in a rehabilitation program.
  • When checking references with previous employers, ask specific questions about performance.
  • If proficiency tests are required, find out if any help is needed to take them. The individual may need more time. They may need to take the test in a quiet, isolated setting, rather than with a group.
  • You can also contact Workwise!

What about my own mental health?

There may be times when you experience distress yourself. It is important to look after your own mental health. Finding support either within your organisation or externally with friends and family can be extremely helpful towards re-establishing wellbeing.

Useful websites

This website aims to help New Zealanders recognise and understand depression. It encourages people to seek appropriate help and offers resources for health professionals treating people experiencing depression.

Like Minds
The workplaces section of the Like Minds website contains information and research about the importance of employment to recovery.

Open Minds
Videos, manager’s guide, resources and e-learning course to provide managers with practical tips to help with conversations about mental health in the workplace.

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