Supporting employees through a period of mental ill health may be difficult on a personal and professional level. It is important to look after your own mental health and well-being too.
Some employees are responsible for caring for people with mental ill health. Managers need to recognise that these carers require supportive workplaces and flexibility in order to thrive in both their caring and work roles.
Why it matters
Managing an employee with mental ill health may not always be easy. At times you may feel overwhelmed and experience feelings of resentment, frustration, anger, guilt, worry or fear. These reactions are normal.1
Remember, you are not able to support others if you do not look after yourself. You need to give yourself time—and permission—to look after your own well-being so that you do not ‘burn out’.2
How it’s done
Take stock of how managing a difficult work situation is affecting you. You could feel tired and worried. In some cases, you could experience other more significant effects like disturbed sleep, headaches, tightness in your muscles, excessive worrying or thinking about work and your employees, or a decline in your performance.
Build your personal resources and individual resilience. Counselling, relaxation techniques and stress management training can help you to develop greater resilience to work related stress. Regular breaks from work are important for re-energising.3
Recognise when you need help and seek support. This can include talking with your manager, your human resources team, Employee or Manager Assistance Programs, family and friends.
Engage in professional development opportunities to build and maintain interpersonal and people management skills. Your organisation may offer training and/or coaching, or together with your manager you may identify other opportunities to develop skills in this area.
Try not to take on issues
It is a normal response to be worried about an employee who is experiencing mental ill health. However your role is to recognise signs that they are not OK, to have a conversation and facilitate their access to support. Your role is not to diagnose their mental ill health or be a counsellor.
If you find yourself counselling your employee or providing too much emotional support, talk to your human resources team and manager and they will help you to support your employee.
Look after yourself by staying active and healthy. You can improve the way you feel and think by exercising regularly, eating well, getting regular sleep and managing stress.
‘It wasn’t until I had been dealing with Anna’s case for almost three months—reviewing her tasks and speaking with her medical professionals to develop an ideal return to work program—that I realised that the situation had taken a toll on me. I was genuinely concerned about Anna, worried about whether I was managing this in the best possible way, and also concerned about the impact on the rest of the team. I spoke to the human resources team and they suggested the Employee Assistance Program. It was such a relief to be able to talk openly with someone who understood what I was experiencing, and could suggest some coping strategies.’
Evan, an APS manager
Carers at work
We know that there are many people who face the challenges of mental ill health every day. It is important to remember there are also carers of these people who face many of the same challenges.
Being a carer for someone living with a mental health issue has been found to be a long term commitment—more than six years for over half of respondents in one study.4 The caring role is mostly undertaken by older women and is one that affects their overall health and well-being.5
Carers provide a vital role in the lives of those they care for, e.g. ongoing support which may be in a social, emotional, physical and/or financial capacity. However, sometimes this may be to the detriment of their own employment, relationships, social life, physical and/or mental health.6
The support from managers and the workplace can make a crucial difference to how much stress a carer may experience from the demands of work and caring.7
Have a conversation with the employee. Understand their caring role and acknowledge the impact of being a carer on their everyday life. It is also important to understand when their caring duties may fluctuate. As a manager you should create an environment where carers feel comfortable to talk to you about their needs.
Understand that people in caring roles often describe a rollercoaster of emotions—being overwhelmed with the role, exhaustion, feelings of frustration, resentment and isolation.8 Having an understanding of this will help you notice early warning signs that the employee might need some support.
Provide flexible working arrangements. Many working carers find it difficult to balance work and care responsibilities. Flexible working can include part time work, flexible start and finish times, compressed working hours, job sharing and working from home.
Support employees’ use of carer’s leave.
Remind employees to look after themselves—caring can be demanding. Suggest employees plan and take breaks, use the Employee Assistance Program and carer support networks if relevant.
Regularly check-in with the employee to see how they are going.
Research shows that more than one third of carers experience severe depression and that being a carer for someone else could be one of the leading causes of their depression.
The beyondblue guide for carers: Supporting and caring for a person with depression, anxiety and/or related disorder
A study into the impacts of caring for a person with a mental health issue found that:
- 57% of carers had their work and financial circumstance worsen
- 58% reduced the hours they worked or studied
- 33% had changed to a less demanding job.
National Mental Health Commission, 2012, A Contributing Life: the 2012 National Report Card on Mental Health and Suicide Prevention
- beyondblue ‘Staying healthy’ fact sheet
- Employee Assistance Program and Manager Assistance Program
- National Mental Health Commission - A Contributing Life: the 2012 National Report Card on Mental Health and Suicide Prevention
- Carers Australia website www.carersaustralia.com.au
- Working Carers Gateway – for factsheets, stories and links to relevant websites
- beyondblue Guide for carers: Supporting and caring for a person with depression, anxiety and/or related disorder
Other relevant information sheets:
1 beyondblue 2008, Living with and caring for a person with depression: factsheet 2, beyondblue, Hawthorn West, p. 1.
2 Ingrid Ozols and Bernard McNair, Mental Health – Creating a mentally healthy and supportive workplace, Mental Health at Work
4 National Mental Health Commission 2012, A Contributing Life: the 2012 National Report Card on Mental Health and Suicide Prevention, NMHC, Sydney, p. 69.
5 Mental Health Council of Australia 2010, Mental Health Carers Report, MHCA, Canberra, p. 15.
6 beyondblue (2009), The beyondblue guide for carers: Supporting and caring for a person with depression, anxiety and/or related disorder, beyondblue, Melbourne, p. 3.
7 Commonwealth Carer Resource Centre,Support for Carers in their Caring Role viewed 16 April 2013.
8 Beyondblue, beyondblue guide, op. cit., p. 24.