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How to help an employee with mental illness

What do you do when an employee is affected by a mental health problem?
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How to help an employee with mental illness

The words ‘mental illness’ can cause unease and confusion about how to respond. Symptoms may affect behaviour, and we may react to these symptoms alone rather than the underlying cause.

SANE Australia’s Understand – Support – Act (USA) model, described in the SANE Guide to Mental Illness in the Workplace, provides a structured approach to managing issues that arise when someone in the workplace has a mental illness.


It is essential to have the right information before dealing with any situation.

Rights and responsibilities

  • Understanding employers’ and employees’ rights and responsibilities is the first step in understanding how to respond to a workplace situation.

Mental illness

  • Mental illness is often misunderstood.
  • Understanding basic facts, such as symptoms, effects on everyday functioning and treatments, gives you have accurate background before working on the Support and Action steps.
  • Understanding the individual employee’s circumstances is also important. For example, how the symptoms make them feel; how they affect the employee's work; whether they are receiving good medical treatment and support; and what they think would help them at work, rather than what people assume.

Get the facts

  • Don’t make assumptions about situations involving people with mental illness – get the facts about the illness, understand the symptoms and learn their strengths and weaknesses.


Expressing support is important, reassuring the person that they will be treated fairly and no differently to an employee with a physical illness or disability.

The best way of demonstrating support for all employees is before any issues arise. Promote the fact that you have a workplace which accepts and is supportive of employees when they experience mental health problems, just as with physical health issues. This makes it easier for people to seek help and support, and encourages others to be supportive too.


With a better understanding of the circumstances, and having emphasised that the employer will be supportive, the final stage is to take action. The aim is to help the person perform the inherent job requirements to the best of their ability and be valued as a productive employee.

The Guide to Mental Illness in the Workplace has further useful information and tips for employers.

The Guide to Customer Service has information and tips for customer service staff when helping people affected by mental illness.

For more information on supporting people in the workplace, visit Mindful Employer.


Last updated: 8 September 2020

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