HR needs support if it’s to take the lead on mental health

There’s no doubt mental health is one of the most pressing issues facing businesses and organisations in Australia today – and it’s getting bigger.

Even a cursory web search will find no shortage of articles, studies and statistics on the size, scope and nature of the problem and how to deal with it. Most come from a positive view point – designed to help employers make a difference, not simply make things go away. People understand this is real, and it’s important.

From a practical perspective, a survey last year by law firm MinterEllison was particularly enlightening. Among its findings were that:

  • 94% of organisations believe HR departments have formal responsibility for handling mental health issues
  • more than 80% of HR professional spend 25% of their time doing just that.

And that raises a very important question: ‘How well equipped are these professionals to cope with the task and the expectations?’.

HR may be the obvious department to take the lead, but its people need the right skills and they need guidance and understanding to do it properly. And they need the recognition that it’s a tricky job that not everyone is cut out to do or comfortable doing, just because they are in HR.

Managing mental health issues means balancing the needs and rights of an employee with those of the employer. It requires a combination of empathy and practicality. And it requires an ongoing commitment.

Even making quite reasonable changes to a person’s work situation to help their recovery or return to work can be logistically complex if there are flow on impacts in the workplace.

CEOs and Boards must do more than simply embrace the concept of accepting mental health as a workplace issue; they must give those on the frontline a clear idea of how they see this playing out.

How much flexibility is there to make decisions that suit a situation not just a policy? Are there occasions when external assistance can be called in? How proactive can HR be in trying to bring about cultural change rather than simply dealing with issues as they arise?

Most importantly, HR departments must feel confident in their knowledge and skills. As the old saying goes, you can’t effectively manage what you don’t know about.


e3Learning’s Managing Stress course, reviewed by Sparke Helmore Lawyers, has been designed to provide you with an understanding of workplace stress and a range of strategies to help you manage stress.