The recent decision by one of the National Rugby League’s (NRL’s) leading referees to retire at the end of the 2018 season has (again) prompted discussion about the obligations of employers when managing mental health in the workplace.

For some time now, Matt Cecchin has bravely spoken publicly about the extreme pressures of his job and their effect on his mental health. To summarise, in 2017, Cecchin revealed that he had almost feigned an injury because he felt too anxious to referee a game. More recently, it was revealed that Cecchin, his partner and his son received death threats from rugby league fans after he officiated a World Cup match in New Zealand in November 2017 and had to be escorted through airports by Federal police.

Following his decision to retire, Cecchin has openly pleaded with the NRL to provide a full-time sports psychologist for referees who may be combatting similar issues.

Whilst public criticism of referees in any sport is not a new concept, it is something that has become much more prominent particularly with players, coaches, fans and media commentators having numerous platforms to voice their opinions such as television, radio and on social media. It is therefore unsurprising that the impact of such criticism (whether warranted or not) is felt more strongly by the game’s officials now more than ever.

Cecchin’s retirement brings to light the role that employers have generally to manage mental health in the workplace. Specifically, employers have obligations under work health and safety laws to ensure the health and safety of their workers in the workplace and to minimise risks to health and safety so far as is reasonably practicable. Of course, there are many occupations that are inherently stressful and can have a significant impact on the mental health of an employee.

For example, it is undoubtedly “part and parcel” of the job of an NRL official that they and their game-day decisions will be subject to criticism. As an employer, the NRL has an obligation to minimise the potential impact this might have on the health and safety of an official. This is most obviously done by providing security for officials before, during and after games but the risks to their mental health may require the NRL to do something more than that.

Well-resourced employers such as the NRL are able to mitigate the risk of psychological injury by providing additional resources, such as easy access to psychologists or counsellors directly or through Employee Assistance Programs. Some employers tackle this issue by requiring that employees in particularly stressful roles attend counselling sessions throughout their employment to ensure that their mental health is managed appropriately.

However, for employers who are not as well-resourced, mitigating this risk can be more of a challenge. Nevertheless, there are ways that an employer can show that they are serious about the mental health and safety of their workers, such as:

  • Placing notices around the workplace with simple strategies for employees to consider when they are feeling particularly stressed or emotional about their work, including the contact details of publicly available helplines;
  • Ensuring that managers and supervisors are appropriately equipped and available to discuss mental health in the workplace with employees; and
  • Regularly reminding employees, particularly during stressful or emotional work periods, that they are able to seek assistance from management or external health providers if needed.

In June this year, Safe Work Australia released “Work-related psychological health and safety: A systematic approach to meeting your duties”. This guidance material seeks to assist employers with respect to their duties under work health safety legislation in relation to mental health and safety.

Of course, one of the key elements to ensuring that mental health is appropriately managed in the workplace is to remove any stigma associated with mental health. Whilst employees should be reassured that their discussions with management and EAP providers will be confidential, general and open discussion with employees about mental health in the workplace will also ensure that these processes are accepted and effective.


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