Employer obligations for mental health and wellbeing

Mental health is an important factor in the success of an individual, a team, a business and the broader community. Wellness is not just a new age buzz word – it is defined as the state of being comfortable, healthy and happy. It is not just about an absence of illness or disease, or negative feelings – it is a sense of positivity, happiness and satisfaction. Essentially, its how you feel about yourself and your life.

And while every aspect of our lives influences our state of wellbeing, for many people the workplace and our careers occupy a high percentage of our waking hours therefore the effects of poor workplace culture can have a significant impact on our overall mental health and wellbeing.

As an employer, not only is there a legal obligation to the do what is reasonable to support the general health and safety of team members within the workplace, this obligation extends to situations that may affect their mental health and wellbeing. Knowing the mental health risks in your workplace means you can work towards removing them.

What you should be doing

  • Understanding mental health issues and what a ‘mentally healthy’ workplace is
  • Identifying wellbeing initiatives that you can implement
  • Supporting team members to have conversations about mental health and wellbeing
  • Assess and manage mental health risks within your workplace

What not to do

  • Sweep mental health issues under the rug
  • Treat team members with mental health issues differently to others
  • Ignore red flags in relation to workplace risks to mental health and wellbeing

Final Statement:

Workplaces that support the mental health of their employees have more successful businesses, because their employees perform better, are happier, and stay in their jobs for longer. They also have fewer days off work.


High performance teams

What do you need to be doing to have a team that can be running at their optimum output and effectiveness?

Having a high performing team is not just about having the most talented individuals, it’s about having the right mix of skills and abilities, with the right attributes and personalities. Plus, ensuring that you are equipping the team for success with the right tools and tech, guidance and structure, and support from within the businesses other departments.

Whether we’re talking about the sales team, the marketing team, the finance team, or a field-based service team or any other, having the right people in the team at the right time is critical. Shortfalls in talent and numbers of employees within a team can be detrimental, as can an abundance of ‘thinkers’ or ‘planners’ and not enough ‘doers’. Workforce planning is critical as part of your broader business planning activities.

Putting in place an appropriate management framework for each team or department can have a big impact on the performance of a team – think about the team meetings, the regularity, how they’re run – via zoom or in person, who is chairing them. There is such a thing as too many meetings, but, in the age of remote and field-based work we can also fall into the trap of not checking in, getting the team together and ensuring that there is a good level of engagement and collaboration between team members to maximise their output.

Another key to high performing teams rests in the tools, tech and systems that are in place to support the individuals in collaborating, communicating, and getting things done. Are they trying to use complex software on a computer that hangs every five minutes trying to sync to the server, is their tablet or mobile phone struggling to hold battery life, even considering – for field-based team members especially – which mobile phone network the business subscribes to in order to avoid call drops and connectivity issues while on the road. Sometimes, saving money by delaying review and update of tech and systems is counterproductive as the team could spend more time being held up to be as productive as possible.

Final Statement:

Ultimately, there is no silver bullet to having a high performing team. Every team is different, and the key is to put the right resources, tech, culture and people in the mix based on the expected outputs of the team.


Workplace health and safety

As a business owner, you have a legal responsibility to manage health and safety in your workplace. What these responsibilities are specifically varies depending on the type and location of your business. Each Australian state and territory has its own laws in place, however the overall aim of each of these is similar.

Essentially WHS involves the management of risks to the health and safety of everyone in your workplace. This includes your employees and contractors, as well as customers, visitors and suppliers.

At a minimum, business owners should:

  • provide a safe work environment, equipment and facilities
  • establish safe ways of working, use and handling of equipment and substances
  • provide information, training and supervision when required
  • monitor the health of workers and conditions at the workplace

While it may cost time and money to establish safe practices, policies and procedures, the costs of not doing so could include prosecution, fines and business interruption or – worst case – injury or death to a team member or someone else.

Workers’ compensation laws also require you to have a workers’ compensation insurance policy for your employees in the event that they suffer an injury or illness as a result of a workplace incident.

Of course, safety is not just responsibility of the employer – employees are expected to support their employers

What you should be doing

  • Understand your obligations under the relevant legislation
  • Assess risks to mental and physical health and wellbeing
  • Create health and safety policy and procedure
  • Review health and safety policy, procedures and reports
  • Involve team members to develop a culture that supports health and wellbeing

What not to do

  • Ignore real or perceived risks to health and safety of your team members
  • Assume that your team members know what they should do – training is a must!

The now/future of work

Traditional workplaces are no longer bricks and mortar. The workplace of today is mobile, agile and flexible. And as a result of the pandemic of 2020 we moved very quickly into embracing a virtual workplace, a workplace of the future  – accepting that people can be productive, both in a physical workplace and working remote wherever they choose to with their tablets, mobile phones and any other resources and tools that help them be effective.

Today, we need to start thinking about how do we manage and how do we lead the remote workplace or the virtual workplace. How do we check in each day with our team members, ensuring that we entrust them in delivering their deliverables, enable them to communicate, enable to have a check in, connect with one another and be able to collaborate across projects that they may be working on.

Team members all work and operation differently and we need to accept as leaders and owners of businesses that some will work really well in a virtual workplace, they’ll be self accountable, self driven, no discipline is required because they’re naturally like that. Whereas for others, the virtual workplace – whether that be the local café, local library or their homes may not be their optimum way of performing.

Its our responsibility to change the way we do work, and change the flows of the way we communicate to accommodate the hybrid model of working in an office and those that are working remote.

A tick off and a check off every morning and night is a great way to kickoff and ensure that people are staying in touch, and staying relevant. Each of those sessions via some sort of virtual mechanism, don’t need to be long, don’t need to be structured – all they need is an opportunity to be able to connect, engage and relate to one another.

Keep in mind, that the ‘water cooler’ conversations are not happening, so therefore a check in and a check out only once a week or once a fortnight is probably going to cause you some grief. Maybe not in the short term, but perhaps in the longer term. And probably provide a disengagement level between team members because they’re not checking in, or feeling like they belong to the tribe.

Set up your methods and your system, check what’s working and what’s not – is it a daily, is it twice daily, it is every couple of days and how many different levels of check in do we need. Drive and empower that accountability of self-drive, self-accountability and self-deliverables and make sure you’ve provided the systems and processes to enable the culture of thinking and being proud of the fact we are self-driven, self-accountable and we’re getting on with the job and the outputs regardless of where we are.

Establish that ability that where we need to connect quickly with someone on the team, that we’re using other means. We’re using our phones, our text messages, our online chat forums, whether its through a project management tool or email.

Set a culture not about the hours of work, but about the output and so therefore when someone is having a low or heavy day that they’re able to take a 000 day to tap out because they need a moment.

We all work differently, we all embrace different energy levels in the morning, afternoon and night. So enable your team members to deliver at their optimum time, as long as the end goal is that we’re available and we continue to delivery the outputs.

The future of work will continue to be agile, will continue to be remote and will continue to increase what we call gig or portfolio work. The truest sense of the traditional full time head count will continue to decrease as people continue to harness their portfolio of skills, and choose where they share those skills and be purpose driven and meaningful in their work.


Respectful workplaces (discrimination, bullying and harassment)

Good workplace culture is not built on simply certainly minimum employment entitlements in relation to discrimination, bullying, harassment, and equal opportunity. The foundations of a successful business that people want to work for come from establishing a respectful workplace – respect for team members, respect for customers, and respect for the work we do.

Diversity in skills, knowledge, culture, values and personalities of individuals within your team should be celebrated. The celebration of that diversity starts with respect.

Implementing policies that prohibit discrimination, bullying and harassment to cover the minimum employment entitlements is a must, however it is only the first step in creating a respectful workplace. It is just as important to ensure that you are developing way to promote inclusivity, appreciation for diversity, positive communication and constructive conflict resolution practices.

Ultimately, the worst thing an employer can do is tout, especially publicly, that they are all about being a respectful, inclusive workplace but behind the scenes is a cohort of disgruntled, marginalised employees. Make sure you ‘practice what you preach’.

Respectful workplace ensure that its team members feel a sense of belonging, inclusion and support. They feel like they are heard, valued and appreciated.

A common misconception is that respectful workplace are free of disagreements – this is not necessarily the case. What they do is approach any disagreement – whether about a task or project related matter, or one of personal opinion or personality – with an aim to resolve by issue-based problem solving. It would be an unusual workplace without any new differences of opinion, and a dull one with no competing suggestions on how to do things – in some ways this is the foundation of innovation. Think of it as creative conflict!

Often, the opposite of a respectful workplace can arise as a lack of communication, information and understanding. This can be as a result of a less than ideal induction into a new business. Induction is not just about training on the work that needs to completed, its about onboarding the new team member to how everyone in their team likes to be communicated and engaged with, how we celebrate birthdays, how we work through issues, and how we help each other out in time of pressure.

What you should be doing

  • Prioritise onboarding into the culture as part of induction (not just ‘training’)
  • Practice what you preach
  • Encourage inclusivity, respect, and diversity
  • Call out disrespectful behaviour and ensure it is dealt with directly
  • Deal with issues when they arise with resolution-based problem solving

What not to do

  • Let disrespectful behaviour be ignored
  • Rely solely on the application of policies and procedures to set the culture



Australian privacy principles

A business’s obligations in relation to the collection and storage of personal data is covered under the Privacy Act and in compliance with the Australian Privacy Principles (APPs).

There are 13 principles, and they govern the way in which businesses communicate, request, collect and hold people’s personal information in any type of database you might manage in your organisation.

The principles also affect how businesses can:

  • Handle and process personal information (such as collecting personal data via forms).
  • Use that personal information for direct marketing
  • Disclose personal information to people overseas

If your business has previously been collecting personal data for the purposes of sending electronic direct mail, maintaining customer accounts, loyalty programs, etc. then it’s likely that you’re already applying the APPs to some extent. But it doesn’t hurt to review your processes and make sure that you comply.

While many small businesses are exempt under the Privacy Act, whether your business has a legal obligation to comply or not, it is beneficial to take some practical steps to implement good privacy practice.

The first of the 13 APPs covers the requirements around a privacy policy. There’s a list of things you need to make sure you’re doing, including having privacy policy which discloses how you collect information, what you are collecting it for and how someone can make a complaint.

If you’re collecting data from people but don’t have a clear reason for collecting it, you could be in breach of the Act. Make sure you’re only asking for what you need to be able to communicate and provide your products and services.

If you are communicating via Electronic Direct Marketing (EDM), SMS or MMS, principle seven covers the minimum requirements that a should be including in those communications, including how a recipient can unsubscribe.

As the Privacy Act is the core privacy legislation in Australia, it is useful to take practical steps to comply with this Act, whatever your reason for doing so. However there are other possibly relevant laws, which may or may not apply based on the location of your business:

  • Marketing Laws
  • Health Privacy Act
  • Surveillance Device Laws

When working with third-party vendors in software, you must also ensure that they are compliant within the region of your staff. Collection of personally identifiable content in areas such as Europe are controlled under measures such as GDPR. These responsibilities will fall on the third-party vendors and should be handled at a supplier level.

What you should be doing

  • Assess whether the Privacy Act applies to your small business
  • Review your data collection processes to ensure they are compliant
  • Review the third parties you disclose personal information to and confirm that they are reputable
  • Put in place security controls for access to personal data
  • Keep in mind that this extends to employee information and personnel files
  • review your privacy procedures from time to time to ensure that you are complying with your legal obligations

Final Statement:

You should ensure you understand whether you have legal obligations under privacy laws and, if so, that you are meeting these. Regardless of whether you have a legal obligation to comply, it is beneficial to take practical steps to implement good privacy practice.

Additional Resources

  • The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) has a great fact sheet that will help you determine if you need to comply