What are HR’s obligations when offering employees psychological support?


What lengths should employers and HR go to when providing employees with mental health and other psychological support while they’re at work? An expert provides some pointers for HR.

This article mentions mental health, domestic abuse and suicide. If you or someone you know needs immediate support, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. We’ve also included a list of general support resources at the bottom of this article.

In trying times, work can be a source of psychological support for employees. It can offer continuity and stability in daily routine, an opportunity to bond with colleagues and mentors, and a reprieve from the stresses of their personal life.

In more extreme cases, however, the workplace might be the only safe space for someone experiencing domestic abuse. It might also provide a lifeline – a place to connect with others, for instance, and lean on them for support – for workers with poor mental health.

HR has a moral – and legal – obligation to foster psychological safety in the workplace and to ensure employees are able to operate in a secure environment. But when it comes to supporting employees experiencing distress from phenomena in other parts of their lives, where should HR draw a line?

HRM asked registered psychologist and National Manager at rehabilitation services organisation Resilia, Kristin Tinker, how HR should respond.

Former employee sought refuge at work

Before we delve into advice for HR, it’s worth examining a recent FWC decision that demonstrates the extent to which some employees will lean on their job for psychological support.

This case centres around a dismissed airline worker who lodged her general protections claim seven minutes after the deadline, and has now been granted an extension by the FWC for exceptional circumstances.

The former employee, who had worked at the airline for three years, was verbally dismissed on 13 April 2022 and formally terminated by email on 21 April.

The worker lodged the claim at 12:07am on 11 May 2022, seven minutes after the 21-day post-dismissal lodgement deadline stipulated by the Fair Work Act.

She cited as a key factor in the delay the psychological distress caused by her emotionally abusive partner, which led to her feeling like “a prisoner in her own home”. It was only late at night once her children were asleep that she was allowed to use the computer to work on the application.

With her application, she provided a letter from her psychologist, who stated that the applicant suffered from bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder, which caused her to miscalculate the deadline.

“Morally, if an employee goes to their manager or HR and says they’re not travelling well, the organisation has a responsibility to help them manage that process.” – Kristin Tinker, Resilia

“Due to the abusive messages she was receiving from her partner, her psychological state at the time, and the stress she was under, she was unable to think logically,” wrote Deputy President Nicholas Lake.

“The applicant stated that working for [her employer] was a large part of her life and losing her job has been equivalent to losing a part of her ‘identity, self-worth, and independence’.”

Lake said the former employee’s testimony was “credible and reliable”, and that exceptional circumstances applied in this case.

“I have sympathy for the applicant,” he said. “She has been put in an unenviable position where she relies on her role for psychological support where she cannot find support at home.”

Psychological support strategies

Affording employees the support they lack in a domestic setting can boost wellbeing and, in extreme cases, even help to save lives.

“When there is any potential risk to the wellbeing, be it physical or psychological, of an employee, the organisation has a legal responsibility to assess and then manage that risk,” says Tinker, who provides workplace consultancy services around mental health as part of her role at Resilia.

“Morally, if an employee goes to their manager or HR and says they’re not travelling well, the organisation has a responsibility to help them manage that process – have conversations with them, link them to support and offer reasonable accommodations to help that employee towards recovery.”

Read HRM’s article on supporting the mental health of your team.

Tinker provides a more “extreme” example of an employee with poor emotional regulation skills due to mental health issues.

“They could lash out at colleagues and create tension and conflict in the workplace,” she says. “Furthermore, an employer who is unwell could actually attempt or complete suicide at work.

“These are risks that become known to an organisation through those smaller conversations that employees may have with their managers or HR, where they’re expressing that they’re not coping.”

Read HRM’s article on a suicide prevention framework that could help employers to save lives.

The employer should, following an initial conversation with the employee, connect them with the relevant support services to help them moving forward, such as that provided by an employee assistance program (EAP), says Tinker.

How about the case of the former airline worker?

“In that instance it’s very delicate, because it’s outside the employer’s control,” says Tinker. “We always advocate bringing in a specialist. Talk to the EAP provider not only about getting a psychologist to provide regular support to the employee, but a specialist workplace consultancy firm in managing domestic violence situations.”

Although the workplace could provide a kind of refuge for employees in such scenarios, it might also pose an added danger.

“We know that victims of domestic violence are most at risk when they’re planning to leave the home or abort the relationship,” she says. “So that needs careful planning and support. The best way that a workplace can do that is by having conversations and keeping a platform open for the employee to come to them for emotional support.”

The wellbeing of an employee would be of top priority in these scenarios – but HR practitioners can’t be expected to provide infinite support to the individual in question. That’s why Tinker recommends partnering with an external organisation to deliver those services.

“HR is able to maintain independence from that process, which is beneficial for their own mental health,” she says. “But if that resource is not available, I would suggest some of the more common self-care tools such as debriefing with colleagues and upskilling themselves in emotional resilience.”

Mental health and workplace support services

Not every employer will have the resources to connect their team with an EAP, but Tinker says that isn’t a problem – smaller organisations can achieve much the same as larger companies, particularly when it comes to fostering supportive work relationships that can do wonders in the long run.

An abundance of online resources are available to help smaller employers manage mental health crises or other situations, says Tinker.

Here’s a list of outlets to help start conversations with employees and foster a psychologically safe workplace:


AHRI’s upcoming mental health first aid course covers how to support someone experiencing a mental health crisis until appropriate professional help arrives. The next session is on 5 October. Book your spot today.


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Mick
Mick
1 year ago

Where is the line where people need to be responsible for their own situation? In that example, while it is terrible to think someone is experiencing that sort of relationship, why is it the onus of the employer to support the ex employees life and relationship choices? There are plenty of organisations that support individuals with mental health issues and support people leaving abusive relationships etc … why should an airline join that list? The HR function exists within organisations to support staff IN THE WORKPLACE … if there are personal issues impacting a staff members ability to perform adequately,… Read more »

witness
witness
10 months ago

This is an ideal world, in reality, there are no clear guidelines and principles of psychological support in the workplace. This applies to DEI, too. It’s only a fake PR and marketing. I witnessed so many HR people don’t fulfil their moral and ethical duties, either to save a penny or choose to a lazy/easy/comfortable option by not telling management to do the right thing. Many universities in recent years issue many short-term fixed-term contracts for professionals and hire loads of casual academics. I am talking about one of the top brand universities here. It has a global reputation but… Read more »

More on HRM

What are HR’s obligations when offering employees psychological support?


What lengths should employers and HR go to when providing employees with mental health and other psychological support while they’re at work? An expert provides some pointers for HR.

This article mentions mental health, domestic abuse and suicide. If you or someone you know needs immediate support, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. We’ve also included a list of general support resources at the bottom of this article.

In trying times, work can be a source of psychological support for employees. It can offer continuity and stability in daily routine, an opportunity to bond with colleagues and mentors, and a reprieve from the stresses of their personal life.

In more extreme cases, however, the workplace might be the only safe space for someone experiencing domestic abuse. It might also provide a lifeline – a place to connect with others, for instance, and lean on them for support – for workers with poor mental health.

HR has a moral – and legal – obligation to foster psychological safety in the workplace and to ensure employees are able to operate in a secure environment. But when it comes to supporting employees experiencing distress from phenomena in other parts of their lives, where should HR draw a line?

HRM asked registered psychologist and National Manager at rehabilitation services organisation Resilia, Kristin Tinker, how HR should respond.

Former employee sought refuge at work

Before we delve into advice for HR, it’s worth examining a recent FWC decision that demonstrates the extent to which some employees will lean on their job for psychological support.

This case centres around a dismissed airline worker who lodged her general protections claim seven minutes after the deadline, and has now been granted an extension by the FWC for exceptional circumstances.

The former employee, who had worked at the airline for three years, was verbally dismissed on 13 April 2022 and formally terminated by email on 21 April.

The worker lodged the claim at 12:07am on 11 May 2022, seven minutes after the 21-day post-dismissal lodgement deadline stipulated by the Fair Work Act.

She cited as a key factor in the delay the psychological distress caused by her emotionally abusive partner, which led to her feeling like “a prisoner in her own home”. It was only late at night once her children were asleep that she was allowed to use the computer to work on the application.

With her application, she provided a letter from her psychologist, who stated that the applicant suffered from bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder, which caused her to miscalculate the deadline.

“Morally, if an employee goes to their manager or HR and says they’re not travelling well, the organisation has a responsibility to help them manage that process.” – Kristin Tinker, Resilia

“Due to the abusive messages she was receiving from her partner, her psychological state at the time, and the stress she was under, she was unable to think logically,” wrote Deputy President Nicholas Lake.

“The applicant stated that working for [her employer] was a large part of her life and losing her job has been equivalent to losing a part of her ‘identity, self-worth, and independence’.”

Lake said the former employee’s testimony was “credible and reliable”, and that exceptional circumstances applied in this case.

“I have sympathy for the applicant,” he said. “She has been put in an unenviable position where she relies on her role for psychological support where she cannot find support at home.”

Psychological support strategies

Affording employees the support they lack in a domestic setting can boost wellbeing and, in extreme cases, even help to save lives.

“When there is any potential risk to the wellbeing, be it physical or psychological, of an employee, the organisation has a legal responsibility to assess and then manage that risk,” says Tinker, who provides workplace consultancy services around mental health as part of her role at Resilia.

“Morally, if an employee goes to their manager or HR and says they’re not travelling well, the organisation has a responsibility to help them manage that process – have conversations with them, link them to support and offer reasonable accommodations to help that employee towards recovery.”

Read HRM’s article on supporting the mental health of your team.

Tinker provides a more “extreme” example of an employee with poor emotional regulation skills due to mental health issues.

“They could lash out at colleagues and create tension and conflict in the workplace,” she says. “Furthermore, an employer who is unwell could actually attempt or complete suicide at work.

“These are risks that become known to an organisation through those smaller conversations that employees may have with their managers or HR, where they’re expressing that they’re not coping.”

Read HRM’s article on a suicide prevention framework that could help employers to save lives.

The employer should, following an initial conversation with the employee, connect them with the relevant support services to help them moving forward, such as that provided by an employee assistance program (EAP), says Tinker.

How about the case of the former airline worker?

“In that instance it’s very delicate, because it’s outside the employer’s control,” says Tinker. “We always advocate bringing in a specialist. Talk to the EAP provider not only about getting a psychologist to provide regular support to the employee, but a specialist workplace consultancy firm in managing domestic violence situations.”

Although the workplace could provide a kind of refuge for employees in such scenarios, it might also pose an added danger.

“We know that victims of domestic violence are most at risk when they’re planning to leave the home or abort the relationship,” she says. “So that needs careful planning and support. The best way that a workplace can do that is by having conversations and keeping a platform open for the employee to come to them for emotional support.”

The wellbeing of an employee would be of top priority in these scenarios – but HR practitioners can’t be expected to provide infinite support to the individual in question. That’s why Tinker recommends partnering with an external organisation to deliver those services.

“HR is able to maintain independence from that process, which is beneficial for their own mental health,” she says. “But if that resource is not available, I would suggest some of the more common self-care tools such as debriefing with colleagues and upskilling themselves in emotional resilience.”

Mental health and workplace support services

Not every employer will have the resources to connect their team with an EAP, but Tinker says that isn’t a problem – smaller organisations can achieve much the same as larger companies, particularly when it comes to fostering supportive work relationships that can do wonders in the long run.

An abundance of online resources are available to help smaller employers manage mental health crises or other situations, says Tinker.

Here’s a list of outlets to help start conversations with employees and foster a psychologically safe workplace:


AHRI’s upcoming mental health first aid course covers how to support someone experiencing a mental health crisis until appropriate professional help arrives. The next session is on 5 October. Book your spot today.


Subscribe to receive comments
Notify me of
guest

2 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Mick
Mick
1 year ago

Where is the line where people need to be responsible for their own situation? In that example, while it is terrible to think someone is experiencing that sort of relationship, why is it the onus of the employer to support the ex employees life and relationship choices? There are plenty of organisations that support individuals with mental health issues and support people leaving abusive relationships etc … why should an airline join that list? The HR function exists within organisations to support staff IN THE WORKPLACE … if there are personal issues impacting a staff members ability to perform adequately,… Read more »

witness
witness
10 months ago

This is an ideal world, in reality, there are no clear guidelines and principles of psychological support in the workplace. This applies to DEI, too. It’s only a fake PR and marketing. I witnessed so many HR people don’t fulfil their moral and ethical duties, either to save a penny or choose to a lazy/easy/comfortable option by not telling management to do the right thing. Many universities in recent years issue many short-term fixed-term contracts for professionals and hire loads of casual academics. I am talking about one of the top brand universities here. It has a global reputation but… Read more »

More on HRM