Should EHS professionals be responsible for workplace mental health?

As the debate continues over whether mental health should fall under EHS professionals’ responsibilities, we look at both sides of the argument and find out the best ways to promote good workplace mental health. Part of our Workplace Mental Health blog series.

On 6th June 2018, Safety+Health magazine launched a poll titled Should Mental Health in the Workplace be Part of the Safety Pro’s Responsibility? Six months and 248 comments later , the results are nearly even: 52% respondents voted yes and 48% voted no. The poll is still open, but it’s far from a decisive result.

Who should be accountable for workplace mental health?

The question that’s divided the EHS community; evidenced by the myriad of opinions in the poll’s comment section.

One commenter wrote: “No the safety professional should not be responsible for the workers [sic] mental health issue. They can direct them to an HR representative if a concern arises. We are not babysitters.”

And another wrote: “As safety professionals. It is our duty to maintain a healthy relationship with all of our employees … If we as safety professionals are ignoring a person’s mental health, we might as well ignore all hazardous conditions that aren’t tangible.”

A screenshot of a comment on the Safety and Health poll.

A comment on workplace mental health.
Screenshots of comments on the Safety+Health magazine poll.

At the moment, mental health and physical health are unequal under Health and Safety Regulations 1981, with a greater focus on the latter. However, despite mental illness being an “invisible” illness, its brunt can be felt in working environments.

How poor mental health can impact the workplace

Poor workplace mental health can cause safety risks. According to the World Health Organization, mental health problems increase error rates and accidents, and result in substandard decision-making.

It can mean reduced productivity and an increase in working days lost. In the UK alone, 12.5 million working days were lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2016/2017. Mental health problems can present itself as physical conditions, including heart disease, ulcers and skin rashes - which may result in further days off.

And finally, poor mental health can cause in bad working relationships and an increase in disciplinary problems.

But what is the economic impact? For UK employers, it costs £35 billion a year – that’s £1,300 for every employee. The largest portion of this cost is the reduced productivity of staff working with their mental illness, and the second largest is job turnover.  300,000 people with long-term mental health problems leave the workforce each year.

What causes poor workplace mental health?

One in four people will experience mental disorders at some point in their lives. At any time, 450 million people worldwide are suffering suffer from a mental illness – making it one of the main causes of disability and ill-health around the globe.

Anxiety and depression are the most common; and while stress is not a psychiatric diagnosis, it is closely linked to mental illnesses. Mental health problems can cause stress, and stress can cause mental health problems or make diagnosed mental illnesses worse.

Workplaces can be a breeding ground for mental strain - up to a staggering 80% of American workers suffer from substantial work-related stress.

The following workplace factors can cause stress:

  • Long hours,
  • Overload of work,
  • Complex tasks,
  • Lack of variety,
  • Poor workplace ergonomics,
  • Unfavourable working relations and organisational culture.

In response, the individual worker may experience the following:

  • Feeling unable to enjoy yourself/depressed
  • Having a sense of dread
  • Feeling neglected or lonely
  • Finding it hard to concentrate
  • Eating too much or too little
  • Experiencing sleep problems
  • Smoking or drinking alcohol more than usual
  • Experiencing chest pains
  • Having panic attacks
  • Feeling irritable or aggressive
  • Experiencing headaches

© Mind. This information is published in full at mind.org.uk.

Contrary to mental illnesses, employers are legally required to protect staff from workplace stress. HSE have a risk assessment document for employers to carry out and act upon if required.

How the EHS professional can promote workplace mental health

Heather Beach, founder of the Healthy Work Company, said: "It is almost two years since I wrote Mental Health: The next major focus for health and safety professionals? Now, this really does seem old news."

"The question now is how do health and safety professionals apply a prevention first approach to mental health?"

"Whilst many health and safety professionals can commission training, few are in a position to develop a strategy around wellbeing and mental health. Those who are successfully doing this are either in very strategic positions themselves, or work closely with HR."

"Either way, this is a topic in which it really behoves the H&S professional to build their coalitions internally."

As mental health sits in the pipeline for inclusion in health and safety regulations, there are actions to take.

Available Resources

HSE recently launched their updated mental health first aid guidance – mere days after business leaders submitted an open letter to the Prime Minister calling for legislation in protecting workplace mental health.

Following the the HSE Management Standards approach is recommended to reduce workplace stress. Identifying stressors, then minimising or eradicating them means happier and healthier employees.

This involves looking at six key areas of work design: demands, control, support, relationships, role and change. Poor management of these areas causes poor health; lower productivity; and an increase in accidents and sick days.

Thriving at Work: The Stevenson/Farmer Review of Mental Health and Employers, designed six ‘mental health core standards’ to be used by all employers, regardless of company size and industry.

They advise to: develop a mental health at work plan; raise employees’ awareness of mental illness; have support available; provide good working conditions and people management; and monitor mental wellbeing amongst staff.

Mental health charity Mind have their own Wellness Action Plan for Line Managers, which you can access here.

One Barbour webinar invited professionals to discuss their workplace mental health initiatives. Each company cited the importance of developing a thorough mental health plan, then sticking to it. Employers must show commitment to get employees on board.

In conclusion

Whether or not you believe workplace mental health is your responsibility, there’s stacking evidence of the impact of stress and poor mental health and stress can carry an impact, not least as a safety risk.

As we are moving towards a greater awareness of workplace mental health, tools are out there to act proactively. It is much easier for an employee to stay in work if the situation has not reached crisis point.

Mentally well employees mean a happy workforce with increased productivity levels and a reduced safety risk, plus a healthy economic impact. It’s time to act now and strive towards good workplace mental health.

Do you agree? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

Published by blog4safety.com

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A University of the West of Scotland graduate with a BA in Journalism, Holly joined the marketing department in 2018 and brings a wide range of experience to the team. Outside of business, Holly enjoys cycling, cooking and yoga. As the Digital Marketing Executive, Holly coordinates Pro-Sapien's social outreach and blog content, and can be reached at holly.callender@pro-sapien.com.

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