Wattsnext have seen mental health issues within our client base triple in the past 12 months. Hardly a week goes by where we don’t have a client or someone in our network reach out for guidance in this area. Evermind conducted a survey of small business employees and it is a stark reminder that mental health in the workplace is an ever-increasing issue for business owners. The onus is on you as a leader and business owner to ensure it is front of mind and steps are being taken to mitigate legal implications and ensure a mentally healthy workforce.

The survey measured participants symptoms of depression and the findings are concerning:

  • 55% were categorised in the “at risk” category;
  • 5% fell into the “severe” risk category; and
  • 1% were categorised in the realm “extremely severe” risk.

The survey also measured the participants symptoms of anxiety and the findings are equally daunting:

  • 51% were at “some” risk; and
  • 4% at “extremely severe” risk.

The issue of mental health is increasing in small to medium businesses as a result of the emotional investment owners portray on a day to day basis and the subsequent expectations placed on employees. Employees see and feel the highs and lows a small to medium business goes through and at times pressure is placed on them to alleviate the numerous pressures. We at wattsnext, being a small business, appreciate that business is all about promotion, raising capital, not showing weakness and doing “whatever it takes”, however, this is a catalyst to the increasing issue of mental health in the workplace. Take a step back, reassess and afford your employees a voice.

Focus on capacity, not capability. Business owners tend to focus on building their capabilities to handle any and all problems, but for some, it can be more effective to improve mental capacity of employees instead. Richard Branson nails it by quoting “If you look after your employees, they’ll look after your customers. It’s that simple.”

The legal implications are two-fold and can be severe if this issue goes unnoticed and is pushed under the rug. Under work health and safety legislation mental health is part of an employer’s safety obligations. Mental ill health is classified as a disability and it is a requirement under the Anti-discrimination Act to provide a workplace adjustment if required. The issue has also seen an increase in Workers Compensation claims. Importantly an employer’s actions/steps taken to mitigate the risk of mental health and the consideration of mental health when making decisions is a key consideration in unfair dismissal proceedings.

Do and don’t – it’s at your discretion. See below!

The Do’s and Don’t


Observe employees’ changes:

  • lateness, mood, appearance, performance;
  • Managers often fear that they are overstepping the mark but there is nothing wrong with checking in with an employee.
  • Ask the question – “are you ok?”

Step in early and demonstrate you care:

  • Don’t wait until a behaviour change has affected the whole team.
  • Early support is KEY
  • Ignorance is no defence
  • What are the circumstances and what support is required?
  • Ask the question first.
  • Make sure you have all the info.
  • Plan your management action.

Offer referral, without requiring the person to seek help:

  • “Are you OK? Can we help?”
  • It’s a manager’s job to refer the person to help, but it’s a soft referral.
  • It could just be a reminder that there is an employee assistance program for support on any issue.
  • Managers should leave it up to the person to choose.

Make it a common conversation:

  • Put mental health on meeting agendas, refer to it in e-newsletters talk about it with occupational health and safety teams.
  • Familiarity will reduce stigma.

If an employee says they have an illness, listen and ask:

  • “What do you need?” Be aware that often disclosure is a huge step for the person to take. Assure them that they are a valued employee and that you will work together on the next steps.


Presume anything about the sort of answer you will get:

  • It may take several conversations before an employee says “Well, actually …”
  • If there are performance issues, still always start with asking: “How are you?”
  • A genuine concern, built up over time, is more likely to make an employee comfortable to disclose and this is a key consideration in the legal space.

Make judgments about the person’s response:

  • The person might say their divorce is troubling them.
  • They might say they are not feeling motivated.
  • What are the circumstances and what support is required?

Proceed quickly to performance management:

  • This should not be a starting point but a way to manage and assist an employee if need be.

Lead a workplace culture where careless comments are tolerated:

  • Manage demeaning or joking behaviour if it relates to mental health to alleviate the stigma.

Push it under the rug!

  • It is happening and you need to be proactive.

Author: wattsnext Group
The wattsnext Group blog is a compilation of ideas and expertise from the entire team, past and present with a few added gems from guest authors from time to time. With this collaborative approach, we can provide you with a broader perspective and high-level expertise across the small business landscape.