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Effective workplace communication with employees with psychiatric disability


Talking about the job

Giving instructions that have meaning and relevance is a critical skill when you are supporting employees with psychiatric disability.

Psychiatric disability can result in a number of problems that impact on an employee's ability to follow instructions and complete tasks consistently. The employee may have problems that include:

Employees with psychiatric disability (like all workers) need to know what they are required to do. They need to know and understand:

Employees with psychiatric disability may need to be given this information more than once, and in specific and individual forms, depending on their cognitive needs and, possibly, the irregular nature of their condition. This may include being shown as well as told what to do, needing concrete information (bend your knees when you pick up the box) not abstract statements (remember the manual handling rules), or being left with ongoing reminders like a sample to copy (this box has the toys in it in the order you have to put them in).

To check that your message about the work has been received, you need to ask the supported employee to feed back what they have heard. This can be verbal or via a demonstration of the task.


Elliot was diagnosed with schizophrenia about eight years ago. He seems stable on his medication and confident that he can monitor his symptoms reasonably well. He lives alone in a flat with support from his parents who live nearby. Elliot started working part-time at Merrinvale Enterprises nearly two years ago. Although his attendance is a problem – he only gets to work about 50 per cent of the time – he works very well on the days he is there. The productivity and quality standards he achieves are way above average.

Elliot has had a lot of assistance to try to improve his attendance. He has all the practical skills required – he can tell the time, knows how long it takes him to prepare to get to work, etc. However, he is unable to organise all of this into a plan and pattern of behaviour that actually gets him up, dressed and ready to meet his bus on each day he is due to come to work.

When talking about it, Elliot shows he understands why his sporadic attendance is a problem for Merrinvale. He can come up with ways to improve the situation. In practice, though, he just can't

From Fran's notebook

We have 200,000 seed pots to process for Mallard's this week – huge job – and I was relying on Elliot being here to get it done. He's the only one capable of operating the labelling device at the level we need. He wasn't in yesterday and he's missing again today.

I've had words with Bob over it. We should not be putting up with Elliot. He just comes in whenever it suits him, never mind what we have to do. Anyone else would have got the sack a year ago. All Bob ever says to me is, 'Oh, that's the nature of his illness, Fran. We have to allow him some leeway. He's doing quite well considering he did no work at all for six years before he came here'. Bob now tells me they have offered him a change. Apparently he is considering doing the late shift at Fred's Cakes, because he feels more awake at night! Talk about mollycoddling.


  1. Provide flexible schedules and routines. Mental illness can have an overall physical impact as well. This, coupled with possible side effects from medication, may make it very hard for an employee to follow work schedules and routines. You may need to:
  1. Assist concentration.
  1. Help the employee stay organised.
  1. Assist memory.
  1. Help the employee deal with stress in the workplace.

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