There is an increased amount of anti-discrimination litigation around mental health issues in the workplace, according to a specialist employment law firm.
Employers often leave themselves exposed because they fail to recognise particular traits or behaviours that are symptomatic of mental health conditions, which subsequently results in a "level of inaction and certainly a lack of pro-activity in terms of dealing with the matter", said Joydeep Hor, managing principal of People & Culture Strategies.
A lot of employers also feel a sense of apprehension in asking questions about mental illness and "on that basis probably proceed to manage the employee in accordance with other practices", he said.
"This also increases the exposure from a health and safety point of view to that employee and potentially others, and also opens up a range of other consequences for themselves."
As a result of an increased level of openness and transparency around mental illness generally, Hor said more people are identifying conditions, impairments or disabilities which attract the protection of anti-discrimination legislation, and in particular, the general protections under the Fair Work Act.
As such, employers need to possess the necessary commitment at the senior leadership levels to understand that mental health issues in the workplace are not just about an employer "being touchy feely and warm and fuzzy, but it's about an employer managing its occupational health and safety exposures", Hor said.
"There are various serious consequences for individual directors and those involved in management or corporations who fail to take necessary steps to address mental wellness, if you like, in workplaces, in exactly the same way as there are for physical occupational health and safety breaches or identified risks," he said.
Companies need to demonstrate their commitment to these issues, said Hor, who added that they must also have the necessary infrastructure in place for people to raise mental health matters as well as an awareness among managers and leaders to understand the full scope of what can and can't be done when it comes to understanding medical information and backgrounds.
"You need to ensure that any steps taken by way of discipline or termination of employment fully comply with your legal obligations, and that you've thought laterally about what the consequences of some of those decisions might be," he said.
While some organisations do manage the issue well between return-to-work coordinators, OHS managers and HR, Hor said the danger often arises out of line management not connecting promptly and early enough with those in support roles.