Redundancy fears and business stress have increased the prospect of mental illness and depression in the workplace, posing potential legal challenges for businesses, says Greg Robertson, general counsel for Harmers Workplace Lawyers.
Part of an employer's common law duty is to take reasonable care of the safety of employees, including their mental health, he says.
If this situation is ignored, they open themselves to significant legal risks. "For example, for breach of anti-discrimination and occupational health and safety laws, for breach of contract claims, for action based on the employer's negligence, or even a combination of all these kinds of action," he says.
"Practically, employers can face an increase in their workers compensation premiums, and will see productivity suffer due to higher employee absenteeism and low morale."
According to Robertson, there are a number of prevention strategies that employers can put in place to minimise the risk of mental illness in the workplace. "One key measure, approved by the courts, is having an employee assistance program in place -- somewhere employees can go to get some advice and counselling as a result of what is happening at work or at home," he says.
Other strategies include a clear anti-bullying policy to combat interpersonal conflict in the workplace, changing the organisational structure by conducting a risk assessment, taking measures to improve employees' work management skills, and encouraging an improved level of physical fitness through gym membership incentives or providing healthy snacks.
Jay Spence, psychologist at South Pacific Private, says there are warning signs for employers to look out for regarding employees, including an increased number of unplanned absences, indecisiveness, loss of sense of humour, irritability or conflict in the workplace and poor quality of work.