Mental Illness in the Workplace

thX28D52BWI worked for five years as a Disability Employment Consultant with a company in Frankston. One of my work colleagues was an attractive woman in her mid thirties. She had an engaging personality and was sensitive to the issues faced by people with a disability. I was aware that she had experienced periods of depression previously. I didn’t know her personal situation but I gathered there were some relationship difficulties. Her role with the company was to prepare submissions for various Government contracts. I remember talking to her on one occasion about the ongoing support required by our clients after they had been placed in employment. I recall how she listened attentively and appreciated the importance of practical and measured assistance. On a weekend not so different from any other she took an overdose.

“The tragic loss of life among working age adults is an issue that urgently needs to be tackled in the workplace itself, where we spend so much of our lives, and which can be the source of so much stress, especially to those who are vulnerable because of poor mental health or other factors,” says SANE Australia CEO Jack Heath.


Workplaces can affect mental health, either positively or negatively. Although employment is generally associated with better mental health, some job roles and working environments can present risk factors for depression and anxiety.

Victoria Police, for example, is grappling with the suicides of two officers in a week, as it awaits a high-level review of mental health issues within the force that is expected to recommend an overhaul of support services.

Police spokeswoman Acting Sergeant Melissa Seach said, “The death by suicide of a police member is always cause for enormous concern at Victoria Police. Looking after our people is one of our highest priorities. We know that anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress can all be triggered by the stressful situations our people can find themselves in. We are heavily committed to improving the mental health support available to all our staff.”

The World Health Organisation suggests worker suicide is a result of complex interaction between individual vulnerabilities and work-related environmental factors that trigger stress reactions and contribute to poor mental wellbeing.

Dr Sam Harvey, consultant psychiatrist and head of the Workplace Mental Health Research Group (a partnership between The Black Dog Institute and UNSW), says, problems in the workplace linked to mental health conditions include:

  • High job strain – where your job has high demand yet you have low control over your work.
  • Lack of appropriate reward for effort – not just in terms of pay but also in terms of recognition for the work done.
  • Lack of organisational justice – referring to the way information and resources flow within an organisation.
  • Job insecurity and downsizing – mental health conditions can persist long after an event and appear even in those who keep their jobs.
  • Interpersonal problems and being bullied. Bullying is definitely a risk factor for depression. It often happens when there is a certain personality within an organisational climate that allows it to occur.

Adults spend about a third of their waking hours at work. The workplace provides a unique opportunity to provide key health information and intervention.

Heads Up describes a mentally healthy workplace as: “one that protects and promotes mental health and empowers people to seek help for depression and anxiety, for the benefit of the individual, organisation and community”.

A report into Developing Mentally Healthy Workplaces (Nov. 2014) identified a number of evidenced based strategies.

  1. Designing and managing work to minimise harm
  2. Promoting protective factors at an organisational level to maximise resilience
  3. Enhancing personal resilience
  4. Promoting and facilitating early help-seeking
  5. Supporting workers recovery from mental illness
  6. Increasing awareness of mental illness and reducing stigma

The workplace can play a key role in both preventing the development of mental illness and the facilitation of early help seeking, prompt treatment and a full recovery.


Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

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