Depression can affect anyone and corporations are struggling to cope writes Shane Nichols.
They seem to be winners – people who have everything going for them. But a spate of mental health problems in high-profile people in recent times has underlined but only how widespread problems like depression can be, but also the lack of social or economic boundaries. Mental illness can affect everyone.
Where once it was thought that subordinates suffered from depression because of a lack of control in their lives, it is increasingly obvious that high flyers are just as prone to mental health problems that show up in the workplace and indeed may originate there.
After all, say the experts, these are people who are often very driven in their careers – in itself something that may have pathological roots – and the job pressures they face can be immense. A genetic predisposition can compound the effects of anxiety, stress and isolation from families because of work travel.
“Depression is a serious problem for high-flyers, particularly men who are less prone to self-diagnosis,” says Katie Graham, managing director of occupation and health service provider The Resolution Centre in Sydney.
“Many men will know that they feel tired, their thoughts are scattered and that they feel despair and hopelessness. However, they will attribute their symptoms to a hectic lifestyle rather than a medical condition.
“Thos who do know (high-flyers and particularly men again) are less willing to admit it to their family or GP for fear of the long associated negative stigmas of laziness. Of course these are the least likely characters to be lazy,” Graham says.
“Most often it is their partners and families who assist their diagnosis and encourage them to seek assistance. I have not ever heard of work colleagues, employers and the like recognizing symptoms, but I have heard of senior executives ‘coming out’ or finally seeking diagnosis when a friend or colleague has admitted they are suffering from similar.
“Many executives have had some form of leadership training which explains motivation/productivity as being a product of achievement, affiliation and power and so they naturally will seek ways to correct their performance decline by addressing factors external to their health. This exacerbates the problem: they are on a mouse treadmill constantly striving to achieve, not being able to create valuable output….eventually….feeling even greater despair and anxiety for their ever mounting ‘to-do lists’.’
Are high flyers well looked after by their own organisation?
“No,” says Graham. “I think most organisations are cognizant to the fact that they contribute to employees’ anxiety and stress hence the employer assistance programs that most organisations have through their rehabilitation providers.”
Employers need to be careful not to use performance management criteria to remove victims from the company as this may contravene the employer’s occupational health and safety (OH&S) obligations and involve the risk of legal action for such things as stress leave claims.
“There would however, be a lot of organisations that don’t realise that mental health is the issue and thus manage these people out [dump them] for not meeting the tangible key performance indicators that they set.”
The issue of senior executives and workplace stress raises important legal issues for employers, says workplace legal expert Neil Napper of Deacons in Sydney. In particular, employers need to consider their obligations under OH&S, workers compensation, common law duty of care and discrimination law.
Napper points out that there are circumstances in which an employee may be sacked for non performance, because of mental health problems, even if those problems were caused by the job.
“Among other things, an employer must not dismiss an employee because of employee’s disability,” says Napper. “However, under disability discrimination law [the commonwealth Disability Discrimination Act 1992], the employer could dismiss the employee as long as it could prove the executive was unable to perform the job’s inherent requirements and that providing services or facilities to allow the executive to do so would be an unjustifiable hardship”.
Depending on the circumstances, the hurdles for employers can be tough, Napper says.
But, “while the law is continually developing and each case must be assessed on its own facts, it’s too early at this stage to say that in all cases an employer can’t dismiss or take other disciplinary action against an executive for non-performance even if the executive is suffering from stress caused wholly or partly by work.”
“It’s a complex area and employers should get advice before acting, not after, when it’s too late.”
Our comments: The Resolution Centre can assist employers and organisations understand underlying reasons for stress, workplace illness, grievance claims and absenteeism. We are specialists in workplace reform and culture re-invention for individuals and teams including human resource management and workplace conflict resolution.
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