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2. Understanding my role as a manager

Supportive and responsive managers understand the needs of employees and help break down the stigma and discrimination surrounding mental health. This doesn’t require specialist skills or knowledge—it can be achieved by using the full range of people management practices such as performance management and provision of reasonable adjustments.

Why it matters

With at least one in five Australians experiencing mental health conditions each year, many will experience mental ill health in the workplace. People with mental health conditions are working in all levels of employment and flourishing, and with the right management practices and work arrangements even those with severe conditions can be highly effective and fulfilled employees.

As a manager, you are in a position to note changes that may indicate problems, before there is a need for extended absence from work. You have a role in supporting employees returning to work following absences.

‘[I]t is incumbent upon all of us, to work together to improve workplace health. Every one of us should have the opportunity to benefit from the positive impact good work has on physical and mental health, especially those with existing mental health conditions.’1

Dame Carol Black, former National Director for Health and Work, Department for Health, UK

Under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 workplaces need to prevent harm to the health and safety of workers. This includes physical and mental health. Under the Act, an officer is a person who makes, or participates in making decisions that affect the whole, or a substantial part, of a business or undertaking. Officers have a duty to be proactive and continuously ensure that the business or undertaking complies with relevant duties and obligations. See the Comcare website for more information on your role under this legislation.

How it’s done

Leadership actions

Leaders at all levels are critical for creating a culture of good mental health and well-being. Comcare’s Centre of Excellence in Mental Health and Well-being at Work has defined leadership actions which are critical for success. These are:

  1. Focusing on mental health at work by establishing principles that are integrated into work design, people management practices, business processes, leadership and staff development programs.
  2. Assessing the risks to mental health and well-being and taking action to continuously improve culture and systems at work, including promoting a culture free from bullying and harassment.
  3. Providing managers with capability and support to help employees adapt to challenge and change and holding them accountable for this work.
  4. Raising awareness in the workplace to reduce stigma and help people to recognise early warning signs and know how to respond to mental ill health.
  5. Promoting a culture which supports ability to work and supports managers to make adjustments to accommodate ill health.
  6. Involving people at work in decisions on how their work is undertaken, including changes that affect them directly.
  7. Providing clear expectations, tools and support for performance improvement and holding people accountable for their behaviours in the workplace.
  8. Monitoring agency needs in relation to programs such as the Employee Assistance Program, mental health training and rehabilitation services to improve functioning and foster participation in work.
  9. Taking an active role in ensuring that people with longer term incapacity for work due to mental health conditions are offered pathways back to employment.
  10. Providing employees with access to information and support to optimise their involvement in health, and where appropriate recovery and return to work.

It’s OK to talk about mental health

Sometimes people think that mental health is a private issue that should not be raised or discussed. This is not true. As a manager, your role is to respond to the early warning signs by asking the individual if they are OK and offering support.

Promote health and prevent harm

Just as the workplace can promote good mental health through meaningful work, work can harm mental health through poorly designed jobs and exposure to workplace hazards and risks. Your role is to:

  • Keep workers healthy and safe by design—design and manage the work of your team in a way that does not cause undue stress or excessive workloads, and supports work-life balance
  • Manage work demands and resources
  • Match employee capability with the job requirements
  • Assess and manage workplace risks
  • Build supportive working relationships
  • Promote work-life balance
  • Understand and communicate your agency’s policies on matters such as reasonable adjustment and performance management to your employees.

Recognise and respond to early signs of mental ill health

It is not your role to diagnose a mental health condition or to be a counsellor. But you can choose to act when you see something out of character or you are concerned about signs of mental ill health.

Mental health, like physical health, is a continuum. Sometimes people will display early signs of mental ill health or distress. Regardless of whether it is due to work or personal circumstances, your role is to recognise and respond to early signs of mental ill health. This includes:

  • identifying when a decline in performance or unplanned absence might be due to a mental health condition
  • having a conversation with the employee and offering assistance
  • if appropriate, discussing with your human resources team whether a fitness for duty assessment is warranted.

Take time out to get to know your team.

Understand the skills, capability, and interests of your team, including health and motivations at work.

This will help you to build working relationships with your employees based on mutual trust and respect.

It will help you to match employees’ skills and knowledge to the role and to make adjustments to support them at work.

Knowing your team will also make it easier to recognise early warning signs when employees are struggling; have difficult conversations to see if they are OK; and enable employees to remain at or return to work after mental ill health.

Support ability to work

  • Managers should support employees of all abilities and personal circumstances to participate in work. People may require different levels of support at different times.
  • Seek to understand issues that may impact on your employees’ ability to work and make reasonable adjustments to accommodate this
  • Foster flexible and supportive work teams, and
  • Support ill or injured employees to return to work.

Look after yourself

It is important that you look after your own mental health and well-being. It is much harder to be a good manager and look after others if you are struggling.

Useful tools

United Kingdom Health and Safety Executive (HSE)—competencies for managers dealing with stress in the workplace

Manage emotions and act with integrity:

Honest and respectful with employees, behaving consistently and calmly, thoughtful in managing others.

Manage and communicate work demands:

Proactive work management, good problem solving skills, consulting effectively with the team.

Manage individuals within the team:

Accessible and available, fostering a sociable and relaxed approach, understanding skills and personal circumstances.

Manage difficult situations:

Dealing with conflict, using organisational resources and support effectively, taking responsibility for resolving issues.

For more information see the self-assessment tool for managers.

Other relevant information sheets:

1 Black, C 2009, Foreword, in Line Managers’ resource, A Practical Guide to managing and supporting people with mental health problems in the workplace, Shift, London, p. 1.