We reflect on the important message Mental Health Awareness Week promotes.  In particular, the focus this year, to “Reimagine Wellbeing Together – He Tirohanga Anamata” goes a long way, especially given the present climate which has put mental health and wellbeing in the spotlight recently.  Everyone – one way or another – has been affected by the COVID crisis. We ought not to forget that simple acts of kindness and support can go a long way.

In the employment context, this means employers ought to be aware that their actions may increase, or alternatively, decrease the state of its employees’ mental wellbeing.

Mental Health in the Workplace

For many, the workplace is where one spends a large majority of their time.  It is the place, for many, which a lot depends on –a living, self-improvement, and growth (to name a few).  Work being so fundamental in people’s lives – it can be a great source of stress for many, on top of life’s natural stressors.

An Employer’s Obligations

Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015, employers have a duty to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of its workers.  This duty applies to workers while they are at work, or while workers are carrying out work which is influenced or directed by their employer.

Employers also have a duty to not, without proper cause, act in a manner calculated to or likely to, destroy or seriously damage the relationship of trust and confidence.

These obligations apply not only to an employee’s physical safety, but their mental safety as well.  Thus, an employer ought to be alert to situations in the workplace that may affect their employees’ mental well-being.  Not only must they be alert however, but ought to take active steps to prevent such harm.

Bullying and Harassment

Often, alleged breaches of duties come to the fore in bullying, discrimination and harassment cases.

For example, earlier this year, in Miller v Harbour View Rest Home (2005) Ltd [2020] NZERA 172 an employer was found to have constructively dismissed an employee who was bullied for more than a year.  Ms Miller complained of the bullying behaviour to her employer, and consistently asked for help and support.  She discussed her mental health issues with her employer, that work was impacting on it, and that these work issues were part of an attempted suicide.  The bullying behaviour was particularly serious – one instance involved a colleague failing to come to her aid when she had been forcibly restrained by a rest home resident.

However, despite the requests for help, Ms Miller was largely ignored by her employer, and ultimately resigned.  She was awarded $15,000 in compensation for humiliation, loss of dignity and injury to feelings.

This case serves as a reminder of the continuing effects bullying and harassment can have on employees.  An employer which fails to adequately address such complaints, as occurred in Miller, can contribute to an employee’s mental health issues, even though it may not be intended.  As can be seen – these effects can be far-reaching, even extending into the employee’s personal life.

As such, it is important for employers to adequately respond to complaints of bullying, harassment and discrimination.

Combatting the Effects of Workplace Stress

Many employers are demonstrating compassionate leadership – reminding employees that there is support available.  This is important in the current climate, with level of uncertainty as to what the future holds.

Employers are also providing employees with resources which may assist them during this time, for example the workplace’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP), other mental well-being services, and in some cases financial support services.

Finally, it is important to remember that everyone is different, and we ought to take care not to assume that everything is okay with people we encounter.  As Brad Meltzer once wrote, “everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.”