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CCIWA Mental Health Kit: Part 6 – Absences

By Beatrice Thomas

Workers with mental health issues may require time off work to manage their condition.

Open communication between employers and staff is crucial to dealing with mental health-related absences.

Mental health-related absence facts 

  • Mental health issues account for almost 50 per cent of long-term absences from the workplace.
  • On average each mental health-related absence lasts 21 days.
  • Compared with most physical conditions, mental health issues are often gradual in onset and long-lasting.
  • People with mental health issues are more likely to delay seeking help (than those with a physical ailment) until the problem is more severe, which can result in longer treatment and recovery times.
  • People with a common mental disorder (i.e. depression, anxiety, substance use) also often have a physical illness. Whilst it might be the mental health problem that has tipped the balance and led to sick leave, this may not be recognised - leading to a delay in receiving effective treatment and thus a delay in returning to work.
  • People with mental health issues are more likely to suffer musculoskeletal problems in the workplace and have greater levels of sickness absence from all causes.
  • For those receiving treatments such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy the typical course of treatment would be 12 weekly sessions.

Managing sick leave 

Disclosure of a mental health diagnosis

While an employee generally has no obligation to divulge details about their illness, it is important to encourage communication and make the employee feel well supported. Proactively managing the situation allows the organisation to plan for leave. In addition discussing reasonable adjustments as an option can reduce the amount of leave taken. For

example an employee may feel they don’t need to take a sick day if they are allowed to come in late from time-to-time.

A meeting to discuss a diagnosis should be scheduled to occur in a private and discrete location. An employee may become upset during the conversation so it is important that it occurs in a setting out of the view of other people.

During such a meeting, a manager may like to discuss:

  • whether the employee wants his or her colleagues to know about the diagnosis;
  • whether the employee is aware of his or her leave entitlements; and
  • how much time off the employee is likely to need for treatment and recovery and whether he or she wishes to continue work during treatment.
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Employers should keep in mind, particularly if the diagnosis is relatively new, that the employee may still be making decisions about treatment options and coming to terms with their diagnosis.

It should be made clear that no decisions need to be made during the initial meeting, and the purpose of the meeting is to simply initiate and encourage communication.

It is essential the conversation is approached with sensitivity, and the employee is allowed to guide the conversation and divulge as much information as they feel comfortable with.

Be mindful of the employee’s right to privacy and information relating to their condition should not be disclosed to any other party without their express consent.

Assisting with treatment 

It is not unusual for people being treated with medication for mental illness to experience side effects that may affect their ability to work.

Employers should regularly communicate with employees whilst they undergo treatment in order to provide the adequate support needed.

Measures to assist employees during treatment may include:

  • planning for absences when the employee will need to be away from work for treatment or when they are not well enough to be at work;
  • facilitating flexible working arrangements to allow employees to attend medical appointments;
  • temporarily re-allocating some of the employee’s normal duties to remove demanding tasks;
  • allowing the employee to spend some time working from home; and
  • allowing additional rest breaks and appropriate areas to rest throughout the day.

Employers should be mindful that people with the same condition may experience vastly different symptoms and treatment. Whilst some may be able to remain at work with minimal or no disruption, others may require time off completely from work as well as significant adjustments.

Leave considerations 

An employee is entitled to access any accrued personal leave when they are unfit for work due to illness or injury.

Once an employee has exhausted their personal leave entitlement, they should be allowed on their request to use any annual leave they may have accrued.

A long serving employee may also have a long service leave entitlement that could be accessed during this time, if the employee so requests. All employee leave requests and leave approval is to be documented

Once an employee has exhausted all paid leave entitlements, they should be allowed to proceed on unpaid leave for the period they are unfit for work.

At some point an employer may need to consider whether they can continue to keep a position open for an employee who is on a long term absence.

Call the Employee Relations Advice Centre on (08) 9365 7660 to discuss leave and associated considerations for your specific organisation. 

The FW Act requires an employee if absent on personal leave to give their employer notice of the leave as soon as practicable and advise the expected length of absence.
The employer may also request evidence that would satisfy a reasonable person. The notice and evidence requirements of the FW Act - S107.
Other industrial instruments or policies and procedures may also include specific requirements for employees.
The ability for an employer to request certain medical information from an employee where such a request is consistent with the statutory health and safety obligations is implied in contracts of employment.

Abandonment of employment

When an employee doesn’t come to work or does not return to work after a period of leave, you may be inclined to interpret this as an abandonment of employment.

But in such circumstances, and even if the employee is not able to be contacted, the Fair Work Commission will not readily find or infer abandonment of employment.

If mental health issues are involved, trying to ascertain what might be an absent employee’s intention will be much harder to establish.

If an employee is suffering from a mental health illness, it is likely the employee will be hard to contact, or you may be unable to clearly establish the intention of the employee.

The following approach is suggested in circumstances where an employee, who is suspected of having a mental illness, has left work or not returned to work without explanation.

  • Establish the absence has not been authorised by a manager or via a leave booking system.
  • Contact the employee as soon as possible to establish whether they are OK and try to obtain an explanation about the reason for their absence and its duration.
  • If the employee is not contactable using their contact details (i.e. mobile or home phone number):
    – speak to their friends and colleagues in the workplace to see if they have knowledge of the person’s whereabouts;
    – contact the next of kin; and
    – look for alternative ways they may be contacted, e.g. via Facebook.
  • If there is a concern for the employee’s safety, contact the police, who can conduct a welfare check. Avoid the temptation to send another employee to check on them, as this employee will likely not be equipped to deal
    with what they may find.
  • Ensure all attempts to contact the employee are well documented.
  • Whilst it can seem inappropriate for an employer to contact family members or use methods such as Facebook without an employee’s permission, the need to establish the employee’s wellbeing overrides the need to follow usual processes.
  • Failing attempts to contact the employee, an email followed by a letter should be sent to the employee at their last known address.
  • This letter should outline your concerns for their health and wellbeing and should note the previous attempts made to contact them. It is important the employee is requested to contact you, or have a family/friend do so, so that you can establish that they are OK.
  • If you fail to hear back from the employee, a more formal letter should be sent by registered post to the employee at their last known address.

You can then use receipt of postage and a copy of the letter as evidence.
• The letter should outline:
– attempts to contact the employee;
– last day worked;
– a requirement to immediately contact you to inform them about their intentions to return to work; and
– confirmation if notification is not received within a specified time, you could conclude the employee has abandoned their employment.

If you have not heard from the employee by the time specified in the letter, you should then send out a further letter by registered post reiterating the details from the original letter and further reiterating that the:
• employee or a representative of the employee has failed to contact you to explain the absence by the required date as specified;
• employee must immediately explain the absence and state their intentions of returning to work; and
• notification if not received within the period stated, or if the reasons are not considered acceptable, it will be determined that the employee has abandoned their position and the employment relationship is terminated.

If there is still no reply within the specified period, it can be confirmed the employee has chosen to end their employment if you can:
• establish they have exhausted all possible avenues of contact;
• verify a formal letter has been sent to the employee’s home address requesting you are contacted as soon as possible; and
• verify you have been thorough in your attempts to contact the employee and have at all times been reasonable and patient in such attempts.

If you fail to do this, the contract remains on foot and the employee may continue to accrue entitlements.

For advice and guidance on work, health and safety matters contact CCIWA’s Employee Relations Advice Centre on (08) 9365 7660 or email advice@cciwa.com.

Workers with mental health issues may require time off work, requiring open communication to deal with any absences.

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