Access to information about mental health issues continues to open doors in terms of working people feeling comfortable about discussing issues such as stress and anxiety. This now increasingly acceptable dialogue has prompted environmental health and safety professionals to integrate policies and protocols to mitigate potential physical risks. We are fast-discovering that workplace injury can be attributed to a cognitive disconnect that results in safety missteps. These are considerations that environmental health and safety professionals would be wise to understand when taking steps to insulate workers from unnecessary dangers.
Hard Data On Mental Health & Worker Safety
It’s not uncommon for the potential impact of mental health disorders on workplace safety to go relatively unnoticed. Frequently, struggling employees shrug off debilitating stress and anxiety as fatigue or lack of energy to supervisors. But the research compiled by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) debunks any notion worker mental health is a non-factor.
According to the WHO, upwards of 264 million people struggle with depression and related symptoms that rank among the leading underlying causes of disabilities. It’s common for these same millions of people to also suffer the debilitating effects associated with anxiety. Research conducted by the WHO indicates that these mental disorders contribute to approximately $1 trillion in lost economic productivity worldwide. Chief among the financial problems among depression and anxiety sufferers is unemployment.
Gainful employment and returning to a positive work environment tend to help insulate depression and anxiety sufferers from increased mental dysfunction. When provided with a safe, positive environment, people struggling with anxiety and depression tend to be more productive and demonstrate less absenteeism. By contrast, returning to a negative or non-supportive job often proves harmful, with depression and anxiety sufferers self-medicating through alcohol and substance abuse. Negative workplaces also result in this class of employee taking time out of scheduled workdays, according to the WHO studies. Research conducted by the CDC largely supports these WHO findings.
According to the CDC, almost 1 out of 5 working-age adults in the U.S. reported some form of significant mental issues in 2016. And, upwards of 71 percent suffered symptoms related to stress, such as anxiety, headaches, or feelings of being overwhelmed. Another workplace safety component to mental health concerns is that many of the people struggling with stress also had a physical health condition. The more common ones include cardiovascular disease, lung conditions, muscle and joint disorders, and diabetes, among others. Mental health difficulties, coupled with physical impairments, form a perfect storm that put workers and co-workers at increased risk of injury.
How Mental Health Issues Can Impact Workplace Safety
Ranked among the primary workplace risks is the fact that diminished mental health results in poor decision-making. The CDC research indicates about 57 percent of team members come forward about modest depression, and only 40 percent actually get treatment. Depression reportedly inhibits an employee’s ability to stay on task by approximately 20 percent and lowers cognitive engagement by 35 percent.
In an interview with Safety + Health, the National Safety Council’s magazine, experts such Cummins Inc. as occupational health director for Kelli Smith point out that eliminating things such as stress and anxiety that tend to result in distraction can significantly contribute to a safer workplace. Incidents involving injury are commonly caused by unnecessary distractions. At the end of the day, safe works spaces come down to safe decision-making.
Research reports in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, dating back to 2014, draw strong connections between depression symptoms and decreased workplace safety. The Journal has consistently published studies that arrive at similar conclusions. According to Safety + Health, studies published from 2015 through 2017 in the Journal also articulated that powerful ties exist between cognitive distraction and disorders and physical injuries in the workplace. Experts also attribute issues such as upheaval in family life, lack of job security, and hostile workplaces as underlying causes of distraction and injury.
This basically means that workers conducting sometimes high-risk occupations are not necessarily focused during critical moments. That’s why it’s important for supervisors to work in conjunction with safety mangers and boots-on-the-ground employees to minimize mental health risk factors. According to the WHO, these include the following.
- Subpar Policies to Manage Health and Safety.
- Lack of Communication Between Management and Workers.
- Failure to Engage Environmental Health and Safety Professionals in Decision-Making.
- Deficient Control Over and Employee’s Workspace.
- Deficient Employee Support Systems.
- Lack of Flex Hours to Manage Stress and Anxiety.
Heightened risks often involve a lack of skill levels, competencies, and not having adequate personal protective equipment for employees to complete tasks safely. It’s also crucial for environmental health and safety leaders to recognize that workers routinely avoid bringing their conditions forward out of fear of loss of employment, among other perceived penalties. When everyday people suppress these disorders and fail to get treatment, it’s not uncommon for them to attempt to self-medicate with excessive alcohol or drug use. This puts everyone in the workplace at risk.
How To Create A Safer Environment for Valued Employees
Environmental health and safety professionals face a Herculean task at times. Recognizing the diminished effects of cognitive disorders and the ways they may impact physical injury requires determined policies, training, and protective equipment. It also calls for a top-to-bottom commitment to promoting favorable mental health policies that are non-judgmental and supportive. These are things companies can do to improve mental health and workplace safety.
- Provide Literature about Existing Support Structures.
- Empower Key Stakeholders to Develop Support Systems & Social Networking.
- Incentivize Mental Health Transparency.
- Offer Self-Assessment Resources and Tools
- Reduce or Eliminate Mental Health Treatment and Counseling Co-Pays
- Designate Quiet Spaces for Employee Breaks
- Host Stress-Reduction Seminars, Including Mindfulness and Mediation.
- Train Supervisors to Recognize Telltale Signs of Mental Health Disorders.
Organizations that have taken proactive measures to improve health and safety in the workplace have reported significant benefits. These include profitability, reduced absenteeism, and fewer injuries, among others. Industry leaders, such as director of the Office for Total Worker Health at NIOSH L. Casey Chosewood, have gone on the record stating that top-tier workplaces are those who make a mindful investment into their valued employees on a daily basis. Comprehensive investment health and wellness improves productivity, attendance, and decreased business negatives such as illness, increased health care spending, and absenteeism.
Other workplace safety leaders concur that improved mental focus is a pathway to enhanced safety. The links between the mind driving the body are undeniable. That’s why being mindfully present while conducting potentially dangerous tasks on the job remains crucial to decreased injury.
There is little doubt that mental health plays a pivotal role in workplace safety and that those struggling with disorders place themselves and others at risk. That’s why environmental health and safety decision-makers must insist that workers have top-rated personal protective clothing and equipment at all times. It only takes a momentary lapse of focus for someone to get injured. Protective gear remains a fallback safety position.
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