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Mental Well-Being: A Key Component of Workplace Health and Safety
November 15, 2018
By: TJ Scimone
Workplace health and safety is primarily concerned with physical well-being: protocols focus on making sure employees don’t get strained, cut, smashed, broken, bruised, or physically ill.
This is important, but it doesn’t address what may be the root of the problem: poor mental health. And it doesn’t recognize that mental well-being on its own falls under the workplace health and safety umbrella, and has a huge impact on work life.
How Poor Mental Health Leads to Accidents
People suffering from stress, anxiety, or depression are likely to be easily distracted and experience mental fatigue, fogginess, and lack of awareness. These symptoms may be exacerbated by poor sleep. According the to the National Sleep Foundation, “Insomnia is very common among depressed patients.” The same can be said of people who are stressed or anxious.
Distraction, fatigue, and mental haziness directly contribute to many of the most common causes of workplace accidents: trips and falls, lacerations, worker collisions, poor lifting technique, and injury from falling objects.
A distracted worker using a box cutter is more likely to forget to retract the blade into the tool after use or neglect to use proper cutting technique. A stressed employee speeding through the office is a prime candidate to collide with someone else. Someone who isn’t paying attention may not notice a tripping hazard; they may forego using appropriate lifting techniques; or they may incorrectly stack objects on overhead shelving.
It’s easy to see how psychological distress can lead to physical injuries.
Illness Is Illness
Illness, whether it presents physically or psychologically, is illness.
Unfortunately, mental health illnesses are often stigmatized. No one balks at telling someone they got the flu or are battling seasonal allergies, but most people don’t feel comfortable talking about how debilitating their depression is or how their anxiety makes getting out the door a challenge.
Social stigmas aside, the stark reality for employers is that the impact of illness, whatever form it takes, is largely the same: absent and underperforming workers. This adds stress on the rest of the workforce, which further contributes to health and safety issues.
According to a 2016 article in the UK–based Express, “More than 45 million working days have been lost due to stress, anxiety and depression in the past three years. Last year alone a record 17 million working days were lost, costing the economy at least £2.4 billion, according to the UK Statistics Authority.”
A 2013 Forbes article lists stress and depression among the top reasons for employees missing work. And in April 2018, the Irish Examiner reported, “Research published by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) indicates the most common types of work-related illness—that stress, anxiety, and depression (SAD) and musculo-skeletal disorders (MSD) account for 50% and 18% of work-related illnesses, respectively.”
The story goes on to quote personal trainer Kieran Keenan, who says that, “the number one reason for absence from work is reduced mental wellbeing.”
Workers affected by mental health issues who are showing up to work aren’t able to perform their best. The World Health Organization states, “Depression and anxiety have a significant economic impact; the estimated cost to the global economy is US$ 1 trillion per year in lost productivity.”
In the United States, OSHA treats workplace-caused mental health illnesses like any other illness or injury originating at work. Notably, mental illness can qualify as a recordable event. Recordables have the far-reaching impact of increasing a company’s Total Recordable Incident Rate, among other negative and costly consequences.
Mind On Millennials
Two facts should make employers especially interested in addressing mental health well-being in the workplace now.
According to an April 2018 article by the Pew Research Center, 35 percent of the workforce is made of millennials, making them the largest generation in the U.S. labor force. Experts predict that percentage will grow to 46 by 2020.
That’s not so shocking. The kicker is this: “Millennials suffer from more mental health issues than any previous generation,” reports Sarah Landrum in a 2017 Forbes article.
What Can You Do to Improve Workplace Mental Health?
Know the Causes, Watch for Signs
Be mindful of workplace issues that commonly contribute to psychological distress. Increased workloads, long hours, job insecurity, bullying, and poor leadership have a negative impact on mental health.
Factors outside of work like divorce, illness, the death of a loved one, or a new baby in the house also impact psychological well-being. Workers with a history of mental health illness may be more susceptible to future occurrences.
Mental illness isn’t always easy to detect, but there are some signs to watch for. As discussed, frequent absences, late arrivals, or a drop in performance quality are red flags. Frequent exaggerated mood swings—like being quick to anger or cry, a noticeable lack of self-care, or a general ongoing appearance of listlessness may indicate that someone is under duress.
It’s important that your staff knows there is someone in management they can talk to about mental illness without fearing reprisal or judgement.
Address mental health as a part of regular health and safety meetings and in safety moments. Provide resources where people can seek help, and let workers know if your healthcare policy covers counseling. Make it unquestionably clear that harassment, bullying, and disrespectful behaviors are not tolerated in the workplace.
The more you normalize mental health concerns and let workers know that you take them seriously and will address them respectfully, the more comfortable workers will be sharing and treating their psychological distress.
As a matter of general maintenance, make sure workers get ample breaks and movement throughout the day. Work with employees to adjust workloads and responsibilities during particularly stressful times. Provide resources for and encourage activities that promote good mental health, like meditation, yoga, exercise, and getting out in nature.
Remember that the cost of safety and wellness is worth the investment. Make mental health a regular part of your messaging and protocols to bolster the overall well-being of your workforce and your company.
T.J. Scimone is founder and CEO of Slice, Inc. Since 2008 he’s made safety his top priority, creating a unique line of safer tools that feature patent-pending finger-friendly® blades. The Slice website features a Workplace Safety blog.