Podcast Title: Health and Safety to Go!

Episode #: 147: Supporting Mental Health in the Workplace

Introduction: Welcome to Health and Safety to Go, broadcasting from the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety.

Host:    Hello and thank you for joining us for this episode of Health and Safety to Go. As part of our ongoing discussion on the importance of mental health in the workplace and the positive impact it can have across an organization, we are speaking with Emma Ashurst, Senior Occupational Health and Safety Specialist here at the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety.  Today we are discussing what employers can do to support and encourage mental health in the workplace and how to conduct a hazard analysis for mental health.

Thank you for joining us today Emma.

Emma: Thank you for having me.

Host: To start, let’s clear up any misconceptions.  Is there a difference between mental health and mental illness? Over the years, we’ve seen the terms mental health and mental illness be used interchangeably.

Emma:  When we talk about mental health, we’re talking about our mental well-being, that whole concept of our emotions, our thoughts and feelings, our ability to solve problems and overcome difficulties, our social connections, and our understanding of things around us, society, our world around us and how we feel about that.  And it can be positive or negative.

A mental illness on the other hand, its usually a diagnosis, it affects the way people think, feel, behave, or interact with others. There are many different types, we’re familiar with like depression, schizophrenia, bi-polar and they all have different symptoms that impact peoples’ lives in different ways.

Are there any specific issues in the workplace that affect employee mental health?

Emma: Yes, just as the workplace has hazards like ergonomics or biological hazards, there are psychosocial hazards, or known as workplace factors, so researchers identified certain workplace factors that can have an impact on organizational health, the health of the employees, and then the financial bottom line. So we would want to be looking at those along side all the other types of hazards that may be present in the workplace.   A couple of examples would include civility and respect, engagement, and both the physical and psychological protection of an individual.

So the way that these factors are related to one and other, they link back to how the organization is structured, the way that work is distributed, what is workload management, how do we make sure that people are not overworked or overloaded in their tasks and their duties, how well does a worker feel engaged and supported in the work that they are doing.  Ensuring that people are not only physically fit for the work, but is there is a good psychological fit.  So we are ensuring that we’re matching the capacity and the capabilities of workers to the job that they need to do.  Also that there is a clear understanding of what is expected of somebody, so you have a good role clarity, because there is nothing worst when you don’t know what is expected of you, and then expected to do your job.   So having that clearly defined roles and responsibilities and clear leadership can really help create a mentally safe work environment.

The way the work is carried out can also have a significant impact so positive or negatively. Again I’m sure we call all think of days where you have a great day, and all of those factors where it’s a very positive environment, everyone is civil and respectful to one another, you feel really good.  Just as in turn, when you are in a meeting, for example, you’ve got people eye-rolling, that can definitely set a negative tone and can negatively impact your mental health.  So when you have this exposure in a negative way, there is the potential for development of stress, demoralization, depressed mood, anxiety, or burnout. So really an organization or an employer, they need to be considerate and considering all of these factors, in creating a mentally healthy workplace.

And just one more quick note, it’s important to note that these issues can really affect the mental health including stigma, discrimination, demanding control.  So the more control you have over the situation, likely you are going to more be in a positive head space, balancing that out with your demands, so everything can be done in a reasonable amount of time.

Presentism, making sure that you are not just coming into work, but you are actually fit to do your work.  All the way up to harassment, violence, bullying and substance use.  All of those can have an impact on mental health and well being.

Host: What can workplaces do to support mental health?

Emma: Well the first step is that recognizing, just as you would do a hazard assessment, and looking at recognizing, assessing, controlling and evaluating hazards, we would do the same type of thing for psychological factors, as we just talked about.   So recognizing that the workplace can play an important role in positive mental health and wellbeing. By creating that safe environment – not just physically and psychologically, a worker can feel supported and protected. The psychologically safe and healthy workplace, it promotes positive mental well-being and it really strives to not negatively harm the employee through negligence, or reckless or intentional ways.  So again, if we are looking at what that would look like, a psychologically safe workplace would be free of excessive fear or chronic anxiety opportunities.  So again, if you are making sure that you are looking at those factors, you would be removing any opportunity for worry or concern, as it would impact your mental health.   So in that commitment really does have to start at the top.

Again, you would have, we’ll call it, a traditional health and safety program, so we start to look at this comprehensive approach and we’re ensuring that psychological hazards are captured in all the work that we do.  And it’s part of the assessment and the planning and then implementing appropriate controls.  So by integrating this way of doing work into all aspects of the organization, we avoid silos and potentially missing hazards.  It simply just becomes the way that the organization runs and operates. It’s not just about being financially responsible, or operationally effective but it really is about being physically and psychologically responsible and effective to protect a worker’s well being, physically and mentally.

The program is going to look at all the policies and related activities through a psychological lens to see what would the impact be on a worker’s mental health. And then this strategy should be part of the continual improvement plan to improve the work environment, whether it’s the physical, psychosocial, organizational, or economic, and then it would also strive  to increase personal empowerment and personal growth.

Host: If an organization wanted to implement strategies to strengthen the overall mental health of its workplace, what step would you recommend they take first?

Emma: As I mentioned, the hazard assessment really is the corner stone of a good health and safety program and looking at the risk in the workplace and putting appropriate controls in place.   So we would first want to do that, and just as you were looking to identify physical hazards in the workplace. So a hazard analysis or assessment for mental health is a process to identify, assess and control psychosocial hazards proactively and on an ongoing basis. Employees must also be trained to report unhealthy psychosocial situations to their supervisor or manager, and then they would in turn do the investigation and take corrective actions.

The one important quick note to put there though, with the report bit, there needs to be place of trust and support, for them to feel comfortable coming forward, to share their concerns such as a workload demand or an uncivil situation.  The results of those assessments would then help to set objectives and targets when you are developing the programs and policies, just as you would with a physical hazard assessment.

So different ways that you could start doing this assessment, you could look at the health and safety committee reports, and the minutes and the recommendations.  Any worker concerns and complaints during workplace inspection.  If there is an opportunity through a worker exit interview to ask some questions about the physiological health of the workplace.  Looking at previous assessments.  Looking through the root cause analysis of any investigations.  If you have data related to absenteeism, short- or long-term disability claims. Perception surveys or engagement surveys are a good source of information.  And finally if you have access to your data related to health care or health benefit claims and Employee Assistance Programs.

One thing to note because these psychosocial hazards are non-physical, and they generally can’t be seen during an inspection or audit so it’s necessary to ask employees about the stress they experience at work, and then the process must be confidential and anonymous whenever possible.

Host: Once a workplace has conducted their hazard analysis, what comes next?

Emma: When implementing a new process or procedure, you must always consider the psychological impact of the change.  So once we’ve got all of this data and we know where the problems may lie, that’s when we need to start putting together an action plan.  So developing a policy statement is a good first start, to set the intention and the tone and making that addressing workplace mental health is a priority. This will, as I say, demonstrate leadership and commitment. Ideally you are going to integrate that into your existing health and safety policy.  It should state that commitment that psychosocial risk factors are going to be treated as equitably as physical hazards.  Include mental health and mental well being in psychological safety in your health and safety committee mandate.

Develop policies and procedures to prevent workplace harassment, violence and bullying. And then reviewing your current policies and procedures and look to see how they might be positively or negatively contributing to issues of violence or harassment.

Training is really important, so people understand and it also sets a common understanding for your organization.  What constitutes bullying in your workplace, what constitutes harassment and psychologically unhealthy work environments.  So that training provides concrete ways for co-workers to recognize and talk about mental health issues in general. An then managers can additionally contribute to a positive work environment, if they have the skills and knowledge to identify and respond to issues before they escalate.

Educating all health and safety committee members about the importance of mental health in the workplace.  And then engaging the committee to bring forth any general workplace mental health issues that affect their workforce rather than individual's particular situation. So again looking at the organizational factors. 

And then finally just ensure that you are creating a culture of support and trust, in which people do feel comfortable to come forth with their concerns so they can be addressed accordingly.


Host: Emma, before we wrap up, do you have anything else you’d like to share with our listeners about mental health in the workplace?

Emma: Sure, of course.  Again in addition to all the assessments, and the policies and procedures which are very important and they set the tone of the program.  But it’s really important to engage the workers and employee’s participation and involve them in the decision making and get their feedback in what should be addressed.  That’s where the perception surveys are really important.  Clearly define employee’s duties and responsibilities, that will address that role clarity and anything to do with expectations. 

Promoting a work-life balance and creating a healthy work environment; encouraging respectful and non-derogatory behaviours and not tolerating them either; manage workloads, so having a look a big picture what’s coming up, and having look at calendars, making sure that work is fairly and equally distributed.  One of the factors is related to growth and development so understanding what an employee might need and look at opportunities for continuous learning.  Have conflict resolution practices in place and have them communicated so people know what it looks like and what they can expect if there is a conflict that comes up.

It’s also important - recognition, understanding what appropriate recognition is for different employees, not everybody is motivated the same way so it’s important to get know your staff and your workers and know how to recognize their contributions effectively.

Host: Thanks Emma. For more information and resources to help promote and support mental health in the workplace, please check out CCOHS’ mental health portal called Healthy Minds at Work at www.ccohs.ca/healthyminds. Thanks for listening everyone.