Monitoring Mental Health

Monitoring Mental Health

Poor mental health might be your workplace’s most overlooked health and safety hazard.

As a natural progression from the days when fatal occupational injuries were a sad, daily reality, workplace safety professionals maintain a concerted focus on addressing the slips, trips and falls that make up 18 percent of the U.S.’s occupational injuries. However, data now suggests the mental health concerns that are pervading all modern workplaces do have a link to physical safety outcomes and must be recognized, prioritized and addressed as their own hazard.  

In 2021, the American Psychological Association (APA) surveyed more than 1,500 U.S. workers and reported that adults who perform manual labor were predisposed to have experienced symptoms of physical fatigue (51 percent versus the average 38 percent), cognitive weariness (41 percent versus the average 29 percent) and emotional exhaustion (41 percent versus the average 25 percent) at work as a result of mental stressors. No doubt these symptoms increase the likelihood of the missteps or slips that form the staggering occupational injury statistics we see so often.  

Further justifying the severity of the problem, many states today support workers’ compensation claims for work-related anxiety or stress or the accidents it may lead to. 

So, what does the mental health of your workforce look like? How could it play into the health and safety of your workplace, and what can be done to improve it?  

The State of Mental Health in American Workplaces  

As a psychologist, I both see the reported statistics and get to hear the individual stories of how stress and mental health concerns like depression and anxiety manifest in the workplace. Most of us spend around 65 percent of our waking hours at work, so it’s no surprise that our mental health is impacted by our work and why as employers, we cannot shy away from the responsibility of supporting this incredibly important aspect of our employees’ health and wellbeing.  

Wysa’s recent All Worked Up Report found that 40 percent of working Americans are suffering from depression or anxiety—figures notably higher than national averages. This baseline means the symptoms of depression and anxiety—such as loss of interest, inability to concentrate, sleep or eating changes and others—are likely impacting your workers and the way they’re able to carry out their work safely.  

We’re also seeing concerning trends like the increase in presenteeism. While absenteeism speaks to employees refraining from going to work, presenteeism refers to employees who go to work even when they experience illnesses, injuries or other conditions like mental health concerns, keeping them from being fully present in the workplace. These employees feel compelled to show up, but in doing so, when they’re unable to focus and carry out their job to the fullest and safest extent, it presents a greater risk and liability.  

For health and safety professionals, these trends point toward the importance of recognizing mental health as an increasingly important aspect of workplace safety.  

Mental Health and Occupational Injuries  

The same APA survey found that 21 percent of employees had difficulty focusing as a result of work-related stress, and 19 percent experienced a lack of effort or ambition. When we look at safety protocols and the occurrence of workplace accidents, distraction, not adhering to safety processes or attempting to “skip a step,” they account for a significant portion of incidents.  

When employees are experiencing the symptoms of depression, anxiety or heightened stress, we have to recognize that it’s extremely challenging for them to even remain in the workplace and focus on carrying out their job function, much less taking the careful and detailed approach safety precautions would have us do.  

Mental health is also driving up rates of absenteeism and turnover. The All Worked Up Report found that nearly a third of workers are taking days off attributed to physical illness when mental health is the true cause. Workers left in the workplace then have to manage a heavier workload which increases their potential for overexertion and injury. Turnover, which the report found to increase corresponding with workplace mental health concerns, means more new and training workers to manage a greater share of the workload, another known contributor to rising injury rates. 

Taking Steps to Support Workers’ Mental Health  

OSHA provides some guidance on developing a mental health support framework within your company’s workplace safety approach, but it’s up to managers to implement mental-health supporting practices and policies. Having facilitated the integration of mental health support programs across a vast array of companies, I recommend safety professionals work towards three goals: communicate, measure and take action.  

Communicate. Despite the prevalence of mental health concerns impacting our work, in many workplaces, it’s not something that’s even discussed. Start by incorporating conversations around mental health into your safety discussions with managers, helping them to understand the signs and symptoms of a struggling employee. In my experience integrating new mental health programs in all kinds of workplaces, leadership getting involved in these kinds of initiatives is what goes the furthest to normalize them. Then, make sure to create a dialogue that involves all employees, providing information on the health and safety implications of working in hazardous environments when feeling down, as part of standard safety training.  

Measure. Having an understanding of the patterns of low feeling among your workforce can help you make more informed safety decisions and identify triggers of stress and injury. Digital therapeutic support tools can provide anonymized insights into the patterns of mental wellness among your workforce and the key stressors being cited by workers.  

Take Action. Once you’re informed of the status and stressors impacting the mental wellness of your workers, identify changes that can be made to alleviate these concerns on an ongoing basis. Chances are, the change is well worth the improved satisfaction and reduced turnover and injuries that are likely to follow. Additionally, be sure to communicate any changes you’re putting in place back to workers. Seeing stressors addressed by management will increase trust and confirm for employees that the workplace is a safe environment where communication is welcomed and rewarded.  

Last year, the U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, stated that the mental health transformation in workplaces “will require organizations to rethink how they protect workers from harm.” The challenges to health and safety in today’s workplaces are not the same ones we faced in prior decades and even centuries. Yet, our approach to health and safety protocols and support within our organizations often focus on the same outdated priorities. It’s time to recognize the threat of poor mental health among our workers and better protect them.   

This article originally appeared in the April/May 2023 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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