Comcare As one Working Together: Promoting mental health and wellbeing at work

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Australian Government

Australian Public Service Commission


As one

Working Together:
Promoting mental health and wellbeing at work

Effective leadership Diverse workforce Capable organisations and workforce Employee conditions APS Values

Contact and acknowledgement information

Enquiries and suggestions about this guide are welcome, and should be directed to:

Employment Policy and Participation Group, Australian Public Service Commission.
Email correspondence should be directed to: .
Electronic copies of the guide are available at: .

Production team (in alphabetical order):
Christina Bolger (Comcare), Dr Peter Cotton (consultant), Dr Mark Creamer (consultant), Caroline Davidson (Australian Public Service Commission), Catherine Meatheringham (Comcare), John Norton (Australian Public Service Commission), Megan O’Connell (Comcare) Lucy Poole (Australian Public Service Commission), Peter Pullicino (Australian Public Service Commission), Bruce Warrington (Australian Public Service Commission).

APS Mental Health Expert Reference Group members:
Australian Public Service Commission — Tony Cotton AM
Comcare — Christina Bolger and Catherine Meatheringham
Department of Defence — Bev Tyler and Anne Morris
Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations — Alison Sewell
Department of Health and Ageing — Melinda Bromley and Adam Davey
Fair Work Ombudsman — Su Kearns and Melanie Rhodes
Safe Work Australia — Janice Batt and Peta Miller.

The guide also includes contributions and input from public servants with lived experience of mental health conditions, the Australian Public Service Commission’s Ethics Group, beyondblue, the National Mental Health Commission and the Australian Human Rights Commission.

The report was designed and typeset by Jayne Abel and Paul Joice.
Website design by Andrew Glenn and Felicity Kennedy.


This guide, Working Together: Promoting mental health and wellbeing at work, is a key initiative of As One—APS Disability Employment Strategy. The guide aims to empower managers and employees to work together to build inclusive workplace cultures and effective systems for promoting mental health in the Australian Public Service (APS).
We will all be touched by mental ill health at some stage in our lives and some of us live with a mental health condition. Leaders and managers must build their levels of confidence around mental health issues to better include people with mental ill health in our teams, and to enable appropriate support of employees during illness and recovery.

The guidance in Working Together is of two types—technical (improved processes and procedures, including early intervention) and cultural (attitudinal and behavioural changes, such as understanding and connecting with each other). The former we can implement relatively quickly, but the latter may take time. The success of the guide relies on its adoption. This will require perseverance, courage, commitment and leadership.

Healthy workplaces deliver greater productivity, improve workforce participation and increase social inclusion. It’s important to get this right because the consequences of ill health on individuals, their families, communities and the economy are profound.

We are excited that this guide can help us to do more for mental health and wellbeing at work. In its development, we have consulted with experts including employees with lived experience of mental ill health, the National Mental Health Commission, beyondblue,
the Australian Human Rights Commission, the Diversity Council and our colleagues across the APS. We wish to thank the great number of people who contributed, particularly Dr Peter Cotton and Dr Mark Creamer for their expertise.

We are determined to promote a quality of working life that is good for everyone’s mental health and to do what we can to support people with mental health conditions to fulfil their potential at work.

Stephen Sedgwick AO

Australian Public

Service Commissioner

Paul O’Connor

CEO Comcare

Please don’t put the label ‘ill’ on me for the rest of my life. My attitude is that I’m living and functioning with a health condition, just like many others. It is this attitude that helps me be a higher achiever and maintain my dignity and self-respect in the face of stigma.’

An APS employee


Foreword ii

Part one—Introduction 1

1.1 A working life approach to mental health in the APS 1

1.2 How to use this guide 1

1.3 The case for investing in mental health and wellbeing 3

Part two—Information sheets 7

People management 8

#1: Getting the facts right 8

#2: Understanding my role as a manager 11

#3: Talking about mental health 16

#4: Creating a respectful workplace 19

#5: Preventing bullying at work 22

#6: Supporting and managing performance 25

#7: Managing employees throughout their career 28

Prevention 34

#8: Managing risks 34

#9: Balancing work demands and control 39

#10: Managing change 43

#11: Role clarity for good mental health 46

Early recognition and support 48

#12: Recognising and responding 48

#13: Recognising when help is needed 53

#14: Looking after yourself and carers 57

#15: Building resilience 61

#16: Focusing on ability to work 64

Rehabilitation and return to work 69

#17: Workers’ compensation claims 69

#18: Supporting return to work 73

Appendix A: The APS employment framework 77

Appendix B: Glossary 78

Appendix C: Usefule resources for mental health in the workplace 84

This guide recognises the World Health Organization’s approach that good mental health is much more than the absence of a diagnosed condition:
Mental health is defined as a state of wellbeing in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.1

Part one

1.1 A working life approach to mental health in the APS

Mental health is an important issue for the Australian Public Service (APS). The workplace has a significant influence on people’s health and wellbeing. Creating the right work environment and managing potential sources of harm (such as high work demands, low levels of control and poor support) will benefit everyone at work. Improving mental health through work will help us to realise the health benefits of work. It underpins the drive towards greater productivity and social inclusion.

We will all be affected at some stage of our lives by mental ill health—either personally, or in our families or our workplaces. There will be people in our workplaces who are successfully managing anxiety or depression or less prevalent mental health conditions. We need to overcome stigma, prevent marginalisation and provide flexibility to overcome barriers to making a full contribution in work.

It can be challenging for managers to understand mental health conditions, how mental ill health can affect an employee, and how to respond. On top of this, managers need to be aware of the legislative framework relevant to managing mental health, including the Work Health and Safety Act 2011.

Health status can change over time and managers need to recognise and respond to warning signs of ill health so that employees are assisted to find the right help and support. When an employee is off work due to ill health, managers have a critical role in providing suitable work arrangements and support to enable a constructive return to work.

That is why information in this guide takes a holistic approach to the employment life-cycle and provides practical assistance and links to trusted resources. It will help managers understand how they can create a healthy workplace and support those who may be experiencing mental ill health at work.

1.2 How to use this guide

The aim of this guide is to summarise good practice and provide practical information and advice regarding psychological health and wellbeing in the workplace. Mental health is a complex area—things are rarely black and white—so it is important to interpret the advice in this guide according to the needs of the specific situation.

The guide is organised around four principles, endorsed by the APS Diversity Council, which describe the commitment of the APS to best practice for mental health and wellbeing.

1 People management: Supervisors and managers understand how to recognise and manage potential mental health issues, especially as they relate to performance management.

Supportive, responsive and inspiring managers who understand their employees and teams make an enormous difference to the mental health of their employees. People management practices throughout the employment life-cycle (from recruitment through to separation) help to create engaged, high performing teams that support employees’ mental health and wellbeing.

Effective leaders know the value of committing to their people and integrating health and safety and wellbeing into everyday business. Leaders need to give high priority to prevention, early intervention and embracing the health benefits of work. Senior leaders set the ‘tone at the top’ and tackle the challenges to a life in work for those with mental health conditions.

2 Prevention: Workplaces foster a culture that promotes the health benefits of work, psychological health and wellbeing and minimises the development of mental
ill health.

Management actions can help to create workplaces that are good for mental health and wellbeing and prevent harm to mental health caused by job-related stress, poor work design and management practices. Workplace conditions, which include good quality jobs, are strongly related to engagement and emotional health and wellbeing, and reduce the negative consequences of disengagement, ill health and sickness absence.4

3 Early recognition and support: Processes are in place to recognise and manage risks to psychological health when they arise, tailored to the specific needs of the workplace, and managers proactively manage workplace behavioural issues.

Recognising when someone may be unwell and offering support and assistance can help employees to manage work demands. Early intervention may prevent the employee from becoming ill, taking long-term sick leave or from needing to submit a workers’ compensation claim. Early intervention also benefits the team as it helps to maintain optimum team cohesion and functioning.

Work is the most effective means to improve the well-being of individuals, their families and communities…’

Professor Sir Mansel Aylward2

4 Rehabilitation and return to work: When mental health issues are identified, pathways and processes are in place to ensure easy access to effective care and rehabilitation.

Too many employees leave the labour market unnecessarily due to ill health. This can affect the individual’s wellbeing, their family, their friends and the community. The workplace culture and systems of work are critical to supporting employees with mental health conditions—helping them to stay at work, or return to work quickly, and participate in meaningful and productive duties.

This guide contains:

Information sheets: the guide provides stand-alone information sheets on key topics to help managers when it is needed. The topics for these information sheets were identified from a survey of agencies by the Australian Public Service Commission in early 2012.

Employee life-cycle: Appendix A to this guide depicts the typical employment life-cycle of an APS employee and provides links to information relevant to the management of employees with mental health conditions.

Glossary: Appendix B contains a glossary of terms to help managers understand important common aspects of mental health and disorders. ‘Mental health condition’ is used as a broad term to describe a range of mental ill health circumstances, from relatively mild symptoms to severe mental disorders, which may or may not affect how a person does their job. Mental illness is a disturbance of mood or thought that can affect behaviour and distress the person or those around them. Mental health conditions include common problems such as anxiety and depression, as well as less common disorders such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Some people may experience severe and disabling symptoms as a result of a long-term condition, and may identify as a person with disability.

Resources: a list of resources can be found in the ‘useful tools’ section in the information sheets. For those wishing to explore a particular area in more depth, many resources are available and most are free to download from the internet—see Appendix C.
I think it’s important that leaders at all levels of organisations see this as fundamentally part of their job Not just about keeping your workplace safe, you know, stopping that spinning blade or that hole in the floor—looking at what the mental health environment that people are working in, in the workplace, looks like. And, I suppose, walking the walk.’

Kate Carnell AO, CEO beyondblue3

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