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Effective workplace communication with employees with psychiatric disability


Talking about changes

Change can be particularly stressful for employees with psychiatric disability. It is important to ensure they have the best conditions in which to learn how to deal with the changes at work.

Everyone is a little apprehensive about change. Change can be particularly stressful for employees with psychiatric disability. It pays to prepare well for change and set things up so that employees have the best conditions in which to learn how to deal with the changes. Every employee will react differently to change and the size or extent of the changes is not necessarily going to determine their impact on an individual.

A range of things commonly change in the workplace.

Personnel. Any new person in the work environment brings about a change to the group dynamic. Adding a new team member may mean individuals feel that their status has changed. Changes amongst people with high reference authority (authority through position) such as supervisors/support workers can lead to problems if they are not managed properly. Supported employees can become quite anxious if their supervisor changes – they experience a fear of the unknown. This can occur even if the relationship is not a particularly positive one.

Status. This sort of change requires learning about how to cope with a different level of authority – either your own or someone else's. For example, an employee moving from a task where he was responsible for a whole line, to another task where he is just one of ten people doing the same thing with no-one having any greater responsibility may grieve for the old situation.

Task. People with psychiatric disability can find it very hard to transfer skills from one situation to another because their thinking may have become confused or distorted as a result of their disability.

Environment. People with psychiatric disability can be sensitive to changes to timeframes, equipment, place etc, because of their reliance on routine, structure and familiarity. These structures and routines might play a very important role in their ability to go about their own daily routines and tasks.

Being able to handle change in appropriate ways is a crucial workplace skill. Employees who respond badly to change often do so out of fear or frustration, and psychiatric disability can prevent a person being able to handle fear or frustration appropriately. Employees with psychiatric disability may become unduly stressed by change, even when they seem to be quite well-prepared and have a good understanding of what the change means.


Because the new contract for the steel shelving only requires one welder, Liam has been taken off the welding job he was doing at Frame Up. Liam is angry about this. He knew about the change in advance, and was told exactly what his new job would be. The new job is actually more varied and complex than his previous one – an indication of how valued he is as an employee. Liam has told a couple of people that he likes this job much better than the welding.

The problem is that Liam will come in and start work quite happily, but then, he will suddenly start complaining and getting abusive. Yesterday he yelled at Paul 'You took me off welding you *#!!!! because you want an excuse to sack me', threw down his goggles and stormed out, swearing at everyone. It's been three weeks now and he has not adjusted to the change.

From Paul's notebook

Liam is still having temper outbursts about the change in his job. It's strange because he will come in calm and happy and then suddenly go off like a bomb, swearing and shouting. Then, 10 or 20 minutes later, he'll come over and apologise for losing it. It's not as though we didn't prepare him for it. We talked it all through and he seemed quite happy about it. He's told me a couple of times, he likes doing the doors a lot more. He just doesn't seem to be able to control his feelings or remember the reason for the change or the sequence of what's happened. I don't know what we can do about the temper outbursts. They seem to happen so suddenly.


  1. Prepare people for change. It is always important to prepare any employees for changes but especially so for employees with psychiatric disability who may have great difficulty thinking logically about the changes. Make sure:
  1. Once change is implemented, monitor how the employee is reacting to it.
  1. Assist the employee to manage anger and frustration appropriately. An employee with psychiatric disability may not recognise the signs that they are getting angry or frustrated. Help them identify the kinds of thoughts and situations that make them feel angry. You can:

Your voice is getting louder and you're breathing fast.

Liam, your voice is getting louder and you're breathing fast. Are you feeling upset?

Yes, I'm getting angry.

Count to ten, Martina and then tell me why you are feeling angry.

Take a deep breath and tell yourself to 'relax', Liam.

Leave the work area for a little while, Elliot.

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