Managing mental health in the workplace and making reasonable adjustments

Today’s workforce expects employers to take mental health issues seriously and provide appropriate support and assistance. While the vast majority of employers do see mental health as a priority, some struggle to both understand it and to know what their responsibilities are in regards to making reasonable adjustments within the workplace.

To start with, we should look at defining some different terms that are often used interchangeably in relation to mental health – these being mental illness, neurodivergence and psychosocial disability.

Defining mental illness

Mental illness can be defined as a clinically significant disturbance in an individual’s cognition, emotional regulation, or behaviour. It is usually associated with distress or impairment in important areas of functioning.

Examples of mental illnesses are:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Eating disorders (for example anorexia or bulimia)
  • Mood disorders (for example depression or bipolar)
  • Personality disorders (for example borderline personality disorder)
  • Psychotic disorders (for example schizophrenia)
  • Substance abuse disorders (for example drug addictions)
  • Trauma-related disorders (for example post-traumatic stress disorder)

Defining neurodivergence

Neurodivergent refers to having a brain that functions in ways that diverge significantly from the dominant societal standards of “normal” (or neurotypical). Neurodivergence can result from an event that changes the brain, such as trauma, or can be present from birth.

Innate neurodivergence is life-long and impacts on how an individual interacts with the world. For example – autism spectrum disorder, dyslexia, or ADHD.

Defining psychosocial disability

This is a disability that may arise from a mental health issue (including mental illness and neurodivergence). However, not all people who have mental illness or neurodivergence have a psychosocial disability.

A psychosocial disability may restrict a person’s ability to:

  • Be in certain types of environments
  • Concentrate
  • Have enough stamina to complete tasks
  • Cope with time pressures and multiple tasks
  • Interact with others
  • Understand constructive feedback
  • Manage stress

The prevalence of people with a psychosocial disability is quite high across the general population. Results from the 2018 Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers revealed that of the 4.4 million Australians with any disability, 26% of these people had a psychosocial disability. Additionally, 85.5% of those with a psychosocial disability had at least one other disabling condition. In the workplace, 10.9% of people with a psychosocial disability were reported to be employed working full-time in 2018, whilst 14.7% were working part-time.

These figures highlight the need for employers to recognise the complex interactions between mental illness, neurodivergence, physical disability and psychosocial disability. Comorbidity is often present and this is something employers need to be aware of in order to be as accommodating as possible for employees and also to avoid claims of discrimination.

Disability Discrimination Act

The Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (DDA) makes it unlawful to discriminate against a person, in many areas of public life, including employment, because of their disability. The DDA covers people who have sensory, neurological, learning and psychosocial disabilities (including mental illness and neurodivergence).

Under the requirements of the Act, employers need to consider what reasonable adjustments, or changes to the working environment, could be made to support a worker with a mental health issue to perform their duties more effectively. Failure to do so may constitute as discrimination.

Examples of mental health related discrimination include refusing to consider flexible work arrangements or not allowing a staff member to bring their assistance dog to work.

What constitutes ‘reasonable adjustments’ is often at the forefront of mental health based discrimination cases and is not always clearly understood by employers.

Reasonable adjustments

An employees’ request for an adjustment will be considered a ‘reasonable adjustment’ unless it would cause an employer an ‘unjustifiable hardship’ to make the adjustment. In considering what an unjustifiable hardship is, it is necessary to take into account:

  • The benefit or detriment to the employee
  • Any benefit or detriment to others affected by the adjustment
  • The effect of the mental illness
  • The cost of the adjustment and the employer’s financial position, and
  • The availability of financial or other assistance to the employer in making the adjustment.

Examples of reasonable workplace adjustments for an employee with an anxiety disorder could be providing a quiet space to work, away from distraction such as ringing telephones, allowing flexible start and finish times and allowing the employee to take some time off (either paid or unpaid) to attend medical appointments.

In many cases with employees who have mental health issues, reasonable adjustments can be worked out through open and respectful dialogue. However, employers can be faced with a difficult circumstance if an employee is unable to perform the ‘inherent requirements’ of their job even with the assistance of a number of adjustments.

Refusing reasonable adjustments

Where a worker is unable to perform the inherent requirements of the job and no adjustment can reasonably be made to allow them to perform the core work requirements, then an employer may choose to explore other options such as termination or redeployment.

Reasonable business grounds to refuse an employee’s request include:

  • The new working arrangements requested would be too costly for the employer
  • There is no capacity to change the working arrangements of other employees to accommodate the new working arrangements requested by the employee
  • It would be impractical to change the working arrangements of other employees, or recruit new employees, to accommodate the new working arrangements requested by the employee
  • The new working arrangements would be likely to result in a significant loss in efficiency or productivity
  • The new working arrangements would be likely to have a significant negative impact on customer service
  • The new working arrangements would pose OHS risks

Refusing an adjustment really needs to be considered an absolute last resort as there are so many different ways employers can support employees with mental health issues.

The Australian Human Rights Commission has developed the Workers with Mental Illness: a Practical Guide for Managers which contains a wealth of strategies that employers can use to assist their workers.

The vast majority of workers with mental health issues can and do succeed in their chosen career, provided they are given the opportunity to work in an understanding environment.

For professional guidance in relation to managing mental health in your workplace, talk to the experts at Harrisons today.



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