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16 Focusing on ability to work

Recognising the value of diversity in the workplace and focusing on supporting an employee’s ability to work is a priority in modern workplaces. The APS needs to become more effective at attracting employees with disability and establishing work environments that better support the needs and aspirations of existing employees with disability.

Supporting people who are currently in the workforce and experiencing mental ill health to retain their employment is as important as enhancing access to jobs and training for those looking to enter into employment.1

Why it matters

Supporting employees with mental health conditions at work benefits us all through:

  • responsive and innovative service and policy development that benefits the diverse Australian community.
  • improved workplace morale as employees become aware that your agency values all employees with a diverse range of abilities and is willing to respond flexibly to their needs.
  • the creation of inclusive workplaces where injury, mental ill health or disability do not present obstacles to a fulfilling life in work.

The workforce faces many challenges including an ageing population and an increase in chronic disease and mental health conditions. Too many people, including talented managers, leave the labour market unnecessarily due to mental health conditions. Research from the United Kingdom shows that people who leave work for health reasons are less likely to get another job compared to people who were previously unemployed.2

Australia has had a sustained period of tightening labour supply. In a labour market with increasing competition for qualified employees, we cannot afford to ignore the capacity of people with mental health conditions. Workplaces need better ways of supporting employees with mental ill health through early intervention, and making reasonable adjustments to the work that will assist workers to stay in work if their health circumstances change. Actions that support someone’s ability to work allow employees with health issues to stay at work or return to work after illness, and help people with disability to enter the workplace.3

Improving health through work will help realise many of the Government’s social policy aims. The Government priorities of developing a socially inclusive Australia and increasing workforce participation require the APS to lead the agenda in improving health and productivity at work.

How it’s done

Employees with mental health conditions can be supported to be productive at work by considering the inherent requirements of the job, individual skills, capability and personal circumstances and making reasonable adjustments to support people to perform the role.

Create conditions that generate better productivity

Research has identified the following five themes that are important to motivating employees: 4

  • Purpose: managers can reinforce purpose and a strong sense of how an individual’s work contributes to the team.
  • Progress: acknowledge and recognise steps to progress, and celebrate achievements. Help with ways to tackle setbacks and get back on track.
  • Encourage well-being: provide opportunities for participating in well-being activities as a work team. Physical well-being is linked to mental well-being and such activities strengthen the sense of a work community.
  • Mastery: provide fulfilling work and give a sense of achievement through better matching of skills with the work to be done.
  • Invest time wisely and get to know your staff: get to know those in your team and recognise them as a person.

Empower people to work

Assist your employees to make choices and take actions that have been informed by the knowledge that good work promotes health and wellbeing and that working can help them in their management and recovery from mental ill health. Identify what information and support is needed and how this can ensure that employees get the right information or assistance at the right times to stay in work.

Any enquiries about the process for lodging a claim, or the way a claim is managed, can be made by calling Comcare on 1300 366 979

Make time for conversations

Issues surrounding work and mental health conditions can be supported by simply making time for regular discussions and feedback with employees.

Understand the employee including their mental health, ability to work and performance in their role. Find out what you can about what it is like to have mental ill health and listen to your employees’ experiences.

Recognise that things change over time

The employment relationship is not static—just like an agency’s focus will change over time, the employee’s career and development needs will also change. Employees may require different levels of support and work adjustments at different times in their working life. As such, managers need to consider employees and their needs on an ongoing basis.

Design challenging and meaningful work

Define the inherent requirements of the job. Considering what the job is actually required to do will help to identify the parts of the role that can be adjusted to support the employee. Factors to consider when defining the inherent requirements are:

  • The work required to be performed
  • The importance and urgency of each task
  • The circumstances in which a job is to be performed including the way that work is designed
  • The mandatory qualifications or standards required for the job.

It is useful to think about the work outcomes that need to be achieved (which is an inherent requirement) rather than how the work is undertaken. How the work can be undertaken can be reasonably adjusted (see below). Employees with mental ill health are most likely to recover and maintain productivity through minor and temporary adjustments to their work that allow them to remain productive while they engage in treatment.5

Be flexible and eliminate barriers to work

Reasonable adjustments are any form of assistance or adjustments that are necessary, possible and reasonable to make that reduce or eliminate barriers to work. This may include adjustments to the type of work, working arrangements, work methods, equipment and/or the working environment.

Provide flexible workplace options and accommodate differences in the health of workers to increase the employee’s productivity at work. You can do this by involving the employee when making planning and job related decisions.6

Most adjustments are mutually beneficial and can be straightforward to put in place. Despite this, many employees with mental health conditions do not feel able to approach their managers to discuss difficulties and to request alternative arrangements. This may be partly due to the prevalence of stigma in the broader community and an employee’s fear of rejection of requests for alternative arrangements.7

The employee, treating doctors and human resources team can provide valuable information on the most appropriate forms of reasonable adjustment.

Some adjustments may be assessed as too difficult to make due to financial costs or impact on the team—this is known as unjustifiable hardship. However, funding may be available through the Employment Assistance Fund (http://jobaccess.gov.au).

The Disability Discrimination Act 1992 requires employers to make reasonable adjustments so a person with a disability is able to perform the inherent requirements of the job, unless this would cause unjustifiable hardship to the employer.

Examples of reasonable adjustments

Adjustments to work methods—training, mentoring, temporarily shifting tasks that require intense concentration to other team members, changes to the way the work is organised, additional support through a mentor or buddy, working with the employee to develop a written agreement on performance priorities and timeframes.

Adjustments to work arrangements—adjustments to work hours or duties such as part time work, starting and finishing later, working from home and access for the person to work remotely, allowing time for employees to attend appointments, avoiding unnecessary shift changes or postponing assignment of a new project or task.

Access to personal/sick leave—allow time off work for rehabilitation, recognise that some appointments cannot always be made out of hours or at lunch.

Set the right tone by modelling behaviours

Employees take their cues from their managers and their immediate environment. They interpret the behaviour of their managers as defining acceptable conduct. By modelling appropriate behaviour, you can ensure that people in your workplace understand the value of diversity.

It may also be important to engage co-workers in supporting their colleagues, while respecting employee privacy.8

Useful tools

  • Australian Public Service Commission (2009). Ability at work: Tapping the talent of people with disability.
  • Australian Public Service Commission (2012). Recruitment guideline: An operational guide for managers.
  • The Commonwealth’s Employment Assistance Fund (EAF) helps employers of people with disability by providing financial assistance to purchase a range of work related modifications and services and includes support for employees with mental health conditions—such as mental health education to colleagues. For more information see http://jobaccess.gov.au
  • Comcare Factsheet – Support Ability to Work
  • Jobs in Jeopardy program
  • Comcare, Middle Manager - Leadership, health and safety culture: what part do managers play?

Other relevant information sheets:


1 House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Employment 2012, Work Wanted: Mental health and workforce participation, HRSCEE, Canberra, p. 7.

2 University of Essex, Institute for Social and Economic Research 2011, Leaving work for health reasons as damaging as unemployment, media release, Unum, United Kingdom, 21 November.

3 Comcare, Support worker participation, viewed 17 April 2013,

4 Pink, D 2011, Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us, Riverhead, New York.

5 Australian Human Rights Commission 2010, Workers with Mental Illness: a Practical Guide for Managers, AHRC, Sydney.

6 Comcare 2010, Early Intervention to support psychological health and wellbeing, Comcare, Canberra, p. 3.

7 Baldridge, D & Veiga, J 2001, ‘Toward a greater understanding of the willingness to request an accommodation: Can requesters' beliefs disable the Americans with Disabilities Act?’, The Academy of Management Review, vol. 26, no. 1, pp. 85-99.

8 Mental Health Commission of Canada 2012, Psychological Health and Safety: An action guide for employers, Mental Health Commission of Canada, Calgary and Ottawa, p. 32.

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Last reviewed: 
8 June 2018