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ON Series: Reasonable adjustments & mental health conditions

With one in five workers likely to experience a mental health condition at any time (whether resulting from a workplace injury or not), it is important that businesses have a strategy to support these workers and help them return to work.

In this presentation Michael O'Hanlon delivers practical recommendations of reasonable adjustments that businesses can make to support a worker with a psychological injury.

Michael's presentation:

  • outlines the responsibility businesses have to support injured workers back to work
  • emphasises the importance of employer involvement
  • provides examples of reasonable adjustments for psychological injuries
  • underlines the significance of getting managers involved
  • highlights the availability of supporting resources including from the Heads Up website.

Download a copy of this film (ZIP/MP4, 7MB)

ON Series webcast: Reasonable adjustments and mental health conditions

On series – by Office of Industrial Relations

By Michael O'Hanlon, Workplace Engagement Manager beyondblue

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Hello everyone and welcome to today's ON Series session titled Reasonable Adjustments & Mental Health Conditions. The topic and expert speaker is brought to you by the Office of Industrial Relations.

As a Department we are committed to driving initiatives across the whole scheme that improve safety, wellbeing and return to work outcomes for both businesses and workers.

My name is Alicia Bailey. I'm the Manager of Engagement Services for the Office of Industrial Relations and the presenter today is Michael O'Hanlon.

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Michael has over 20 years' experience in operational and management roles in the mining and information technology business followed by a period in a major information technology company and a state-based occupational health and safety regulator.

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For the past 10 years Michael has worked for beyondblue, an independent, not for profit organisation working to increase awareness and understanding of anxiety, depression and suicide.

His current role as Workplace Engagement Manager combines both his professional and personal experience of depression and anxiety to advocate to corporations, industry associations and peak bodies about the benefits of improving mental health in the workplace. We are extremely pleased to have the opportunity to share Michael's expertise in how Queensland businesses can make reasonable adjustments for workers who have or are suffering from a mental illness or psychological injury and are returning to the workplace.

So over to you Michael.

Michael O'Hanlon:  
Thank you Alicia and welcome everybody and thank you for taking the time to view today's webinar.

What I'll try and do in the next few moments during the webinar is give you an overview of the linkage between mental health conditions and reasonable adjustments in the workplace.

What I'd like to start with is a picture of why should we even worry about mental health conditions?

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So if we have a look at Australian society you can see here that in any one year 3 million people in Australia are experiencing depression and/or anxiety. You can see the prevalent rates are higher in women in both cases and tragically every day in Australia eight people die by suicide, six of whom are men. For every death there's 30 suicide attempts and every suicide has a ripple effect around, impacting about 135 people. So that's the society that we live in.

What that means from a workplace perspective is that everyone listening will through some way, either directly or indirectly through their families, friends or workmates, be impacted by a mental health condition.

When we go through these slides I'd like you to think not just of the workplace but think for some people viewing today this may even be you, so that mental health conditions are actually very democratic. They affect anybody across all ages and all occupations in the workplace.

The majority of people who experience a mental health condition however, you won't even notice in the workplace because they are very productive.

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So if we take it down a bit more specifically what those statistics mean is that poor mental health is likely to affect one in five workers.

Just apply that to your workplace for the moment and just do a quick calculation of what that would mean.

That highlights why I said earlier that it will impact most people in a workplace.

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Mental health conditions like many other things in life are covered by legal obligations and I've just got here the four key ones. There's the Work Health and Safety legislation, the Disability and Discrimination Act, Privacy Act and Bullying Act. What we'll focus on today are the first two, the work health and safety regulations and the Discrimination Act. They're the two that particularly relate to reasonable adjustments in the workplace.

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If we start with the Queensland Workers' Compensation and Rehabilitation Act of 2003 Section 228 subclause one clearly states that 'The employer of a worker who has sustained an injury must take all reasonable steps to assist or provide the worker with rehabilitation for the period of which the worker is entitled to compensation.'

The obligation applies equally for physical and psychological injuries sustained by the worker. There is no distinction. Equally there's no distinction in the employer's obligation to make reasonable adjustments within the workplace to accommodate the worker's level of functionality.

This also applies not just to an injury that occurs in a workplace, the legislation also applies to exacerbating an existing injury.

There's good research around the health benefits of good work highlighting that recovery at work following an injury, be it physical or psychological is more beneficial to the worker and their overall rehabilitation.

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The other Act that is relevant to this area as I mentioned is the Disability Discrimination Act. It's a broader Act. It protects everyone in Australia against discrimination based on disability and within the Act the term 'disability' includes mental health conditions.

So if an employee has a disability, be that a mental health condition, then the employer must make workplace changes or workplace adjustments and if necessary seek advice from government agencies or organisations around how to provide those services to an individual with a disability.

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What does this mean? It means it's simply unlawful to discriminate against someone on the grounds of a disability and there's some of the areas or all the areas that are covered. It's the recruitment process, decisions on who will get a job, terms and conditions of employment, promotion, transfer or dismissal or other detrimental impacts on an individual.

So they're the two pieces of legislation that we'll be basing today's webinar around.

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Let's move onto how do we go about identifying positive adjustments to an individual's work environment.

First of all it's very important not to make assumptions about what someone with depression or anxiety will or will not find challenging in the workplace. These conditions are different for everybody who experiences them. So the best way is to talk to them about their strengths and what they enjoy about their job, and how you can leverage that.

Work with your discussion to help the employee identify their own stresses and potential difficulties and then together work through what are possible solutions.

Of course you can call on medical advice if you need medical advice and you'll have people in your organisation perhaps like return to work coordinators who will be able to give you some specific advice on this matter.

What I'd like to do now is just touch on some very simple steps that can be taken for making reasonably practical adjustments for an individual who may be experiencing a mental health condition.

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Flexible working hours and location. One of the things around mental health conditions is they can impact individuals at different times during the day. For some people it's very tough in the mornings. So changing working hours is a great way to make a reasonable adjustment. Or allow for the effects of medication. Working part time or splitting shifts. Allowing them to take more frequent breaks. A graduated return to work if someone has had to go off work for treatment for their condition.

Making changes to the locations in which they're working and the obvious things around making environmental adjustments. Now all of these adjustments and others I'll go on to mention, are not ongoing forever. These need to be managed in a considered way where you sit down and understand what's being agreed to, for how long and when it will be reviewed. So this is just a normal management practice.

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Some of the other areas you can look at are adjusting workload and stress by reducing the actual workload or modifying their tasks, varying the task to allow a much more self paced workload and if someone has been off work, making sure they don't return to that awful backlog of work or emails that we all experience when we've been on holidays.

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Other areas are establish goals, prompts, reminders and checklists to assist them with time management to stay on top of a task that they have got to do. You may need to look at modifying performance related pay arrangements and reallocate work within the team while capitalising on each person's strengths.

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Training and support is another area that is of significant impact both for the individual but also for their colleagues in the workplace. So provide access to professional mentoring, coaching or on the job peer support.

Provide extra training, mentoring and support. Make changes to supervision. Modify the way instructions and feedback are given.

Have brief weekly meetings to check in and see how people are travelling and allow extra time to learn tasks and perhaps allow the employee to attend tailored training sessions.

If your workplace hasn't already undertaken general education and training with others in the workforce, is it possibly a time to consider doing that so other individuals, their colleagues will have a good insight into how a mental health condition can impact on an individual and what they can do to support them.

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If you're looking from an employer's perspective when identifying potential adjustments think about the practicalities and how you're going to implement them. Get input or support from other team members but most importantly discuss with your employee how you will communicate this because there is a legislation as I mentioned earlier around privacy and you cannot disclose that someone is experiencing a mental health condition without their permission. So it's very important that you seek their input how you will communicate this.

So as a manager think about what are the core requirements of the role. Is there anything that cannot be altered?

Think about associated financial costs and how you're going to manage those.

Do you have adequate resources to accommodate adjustments?

Are any disruptions likely to occur as a result and either to other employees or work flow?

How are you going to manage any changes in workflow on other employees?

What's the timeframe for introducing any of these kind of adjustments?

What we've done at beyondblue to assist workplaces managing mental health in the workplace more generally is an initiative called Heads Up.

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The Heads Up website is a central point for all workplaces to find out just about anything you wish to know about creating a mentally healthy workplace, taking care of your own mental health, supporting someone you might be concerned about and included in that is suggestions around reasonable adjustments.

It has free resources for all individuals across all levels of a workplace, case studies, videos, tools, fact sheets, brochures, booklets, all of which are there and can be downloaded and used at no cost.

A key feature of the website is the Heads Up Action Plan tool which gives you some suggestions around how you may want to go around implementing a mental health strategy in your workplace which would of course incorporate an approach to reasonably practical adjustments.

So in conclusion I'd just like to remind you that there is obligations in place in terms of having to make reasonably practical adjustment in a workplace for an individual who is experiencing a mental health condition. These are no different to what you would do for anyone who has a physical injury in principle. So think from that perspective and remember you do manage this as you do manage any other initiative with a worker - you set a timeframe, you agree on what will be done within that timeframe, you come back, check in how it's going and then make adjustments if you need to.

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So if you want to know more about mentally healthy workplaces have a look at

So thanks again for your time and I'll hand you back to Alicia now.

Alicia Bailey:  
Thank you Michael for sharing your expertise and we hope that you as Queensland businesses found those strategies concise and practical because that's exactly what we're hoping to deliver for you.

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So Michael thanks again.

We're happy to engage beyondblue in these types of education initiatives and thank you everyone for participating in this ON Series session and we look forward to delivering more of these sessions for you in the near future.

Thank you.

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