If you’re sitting around a dinner table right now, there’s a high chance someone in your vicinity has a mental illness. Mental illnesses are so common that we all know someone who is suffering: one in five Australians experiences one at any given time. And while we’re getting better at helping people in the private sphere, very few of us understand how to support employees at work. This problem is exacerbated with small businesses – often, owners simply don’t have the budget to purchase expensive, fixed-fee Employee Assistance Programs (EAP). 

Yet if small business owners don’t help staff struggling with their mental health, the consequences can be dire. Mentally unhealthy employees can be anything from 10-80% less productive. Altogether, the cost of mental health is astounding – businesses lose $6.5 billion every year by failing to assist their staff who are suffering. And helping with mental health isn’t a ‘nice to do,’ for small businesses, it’s a requirement: as an employer, you’re legally required to ensure that your workplace is safe and healthy for your staff. 

Helping employees with their mental health can be complex, but there is plenty you can do. Here’s how to best assist a staff member who you think is struggling: 

  1. Plan a discussion

If you suspect mental health issues, it’s best to arrange a confidential discussion your employee To ensure the meeting is successful as possible, you should: 

  • Make the meeting comfortable: Find a quiet, non-threatening place to meet. Also, if you’ve made your employee aware that you’ll be meeting to discuss their mental health, offer them the option to invite a support person. 
  • Don’t try to diagnose the problem: Frame your discussion as one of concern. Focus on work-related observations and don’t make accusations.
  • Observe body language and be sensitive: It is, understandably, difficult for your employee to disclose their mental health issue. Try to make them feel as comfortable as possible by being open in your body language. You’ll also need to prepare for all possible responses: the meeting may become uncomfortable, or your employee may become angry or upset. 
  • Know the law: Before initiating a mental health discussion, know the law. Legally, you can discuss your employee’s mental illness so you can identify adjustments required to accommodate them. But it’s considered illegal to ask questions that may be humiliating or that aren’t related to work performance. Unless your employee’s issues pose a threat to your business, you’ll also have to keep any disclosure confidential. 
  • Make a plan: Your employee may deny any issues. If they do, make sure you let them know you’re available anytime for follow-up. If they do disclose, work with them to make a plan to create adjustments as soon as possible.

Remember that there’s a number of reasons that your employee may not disclose. For example, they might not be aware of the issues themselves, or they may feel embarrassed or concerned that their disclosure will result in discrimination. But even if they haven’t disclosed anything to you, you can still offer them reasonable adjustments.

2. Make reasonable adjustments

With or without disclosure, you can help your employee with their mental health. The best way to do so is through offering reasonable adjustments. These may include: 

  • Flexible work arrangements:  You can offer your staff member the option of working from home or varying their hours. 
  • Altering the employees’ job: You can also adjust the type of work they’re doing or the projects they’re working on. 
  • Changing the workplace: You may need to change your employee’s physical work space, for example moving them, or allowing more breaks. 
  • Offering a mental health day: Let your employee know that they can take their sick leave as a mental health day, if required. 
  • Offering further support: If possible, offer your employee further support through an EAP program. 

3. Provide support to co-workers

Given the nature of small businesses, if someone is struggling with their mental health, everyone around them is likely to be aware of it – and may also be affected by it. To support your other employees with this, make sure you: 

  • Respect your employees’ privacy: Don’t share details – simply tell other employees that their colleague requires sick leave. 
  • Manage workload concerns: Redistribute workload as you would if any of your other staff had time off. 
  • (If your employee has disclosed their issue and is happy for it to be disclosed to others) Consider providing training or information on mental illness: As a business owner, you’re instrumental in dismantling any stigma around mental illness for your staff. If your employee is happy to disclose their situation, ensure you provide a briefing or training if possible to your other staff on how to best manage mental illnesses in the workplace. 

As a business owner, it pays – literally – to be able to better manage the mental health of your staff. By taking an empathetic approach, making time for your staff and helping them to the best of your ability, you can help everyone thrive at work and ensure you have the most productive workplace as a result.