If your workplace had a job process that racked up near-misses or injuries, the EHS team wouldn’t hesitate to intervene by investigating any incident to determine its causes, conducting a hazard assessment to identify hazards and instituting controls using the hierarchy of controls as a preventative guide to avoid incidents before they happen. Mental health in the workplace should be taken just as seriously as physical health. Organizations can take steps to help limit burnout and other poor mental health outcomes.
The challenge is immense. The CDC estimates that 40% of American adults struggled with their mental health in 2020, and 71% reported having difficulty managing stress and feeling overwhelmed. With these numbers, it's not surprising that many in the environment, health and safety (EHS) field are beginning to see mental health as an area of great professional concern.
A standard published in June 2021 by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) is an example of how mental health is being placed more firmly under the rubric of occupational safety. ISO 45003 provides guidance for managing psychosocial risks in the workplace and supports ISO 45001, a widely respected standard on safety management systems. For many organizations that look to ISO standards for management system best practices, this will add mental well-being to the EHS team’s portfolio.
The Many Facets of Mental Health and Well-Being
The CDC describes mental health as the sum of a person’s social, emotional and psychological well-being, and as something that affects how we think, feel, act, respond to stress, relate to others and make healthy choices. It's a multifaceted subject that can be described and discussed in many different ways.
Similarly, there are many definitions and descriptions of what good mental health looks like. For example, the Mental Health Foundation (UK) lists four abilities that define good mental health:
- The ability to learn
- The ability to express emotions, both positive and negative
- The ability to form and maintain healthy relationships
- The ability to cope with change and uncertainty
It's easy to see how a healthy work environment can support those abilities, while a dysfunctional environment is likely to undermine them. And good mental health can also contribute to good outcomes on the job. The CDC notes that individuals with high levels of well-being are more productive at work.
The Cost of Ignoring Mental Health
In fact, there's a strong business case for taking workplace mental health seriously. According to a white paper published by the nonprofit Mental Health America, American businesses lose over $500 billion in productivity annually due to mental health issues. And depression has become a leading cause of disability according to the World Health Organization.
Medical expenditures represent only a small fraction of the full cost of mental illness. Scientific American reports that treatment made up only 11% of the cost of major depressive disorder (MDD) to businesses. The vast majority (61%) of the illnesses’ costs came in the form of absenteeism, or excess days of work missed, and “presenteeism," or days when a sick employee came to work but was unable to perform fully due to MDD.
Chronic mental health issues that don’t rise to the level of MDD can also affect worker performance. Burnout, which is characterized by feelings of emotional exhaustion, cynicism and inadequacy, is one of the most common consequences of workplace stress. A metastudy published in PLOS One found that burnout is associated with a doubling in employee absenteeism, as well as an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and sleep disorders. A study in the journal Biological Psychology found that chronic burnout can impair workers’ memory and attention.
A Society for Human Resource Management poll found 41% of workers reported feelings of burnout in 2020, and IOSH Magazine reports that psychosocial risks like chronic stress, anxiety and exhaustion are present in every sector and organization. A problem this widespread demands a comprehensive plan of action.
Building a Better Culture
You don’t need to be a psychologist to address mental health risks in the workplace. Here are some basic, expert-recommended steps that organizations can consider.
- Communicate: Encourage workers to be open about experiencing stress in the workplace. EHS Today reports that the stigma surrounding mental health issues can be one of the biggest barriers to getting help.
- Identify and manage psychosocial risks: The recently drafted ISO 45003 standard recommends forming a mental health task group to identify psychosocial risks and develop a plan for their mitigation. Psychosocial risks can also be incorporated into your incident investigation procedures, helping you understand how mental health is impacting workplace safety.
- Offer coping skills training: The CDC advises businesses to host seminars on stress management techniques and to train supervisors on spotting warning signs of burnout and depression.
- Crack down on harassment and bullying: The Mayo Clinic cites dysfunctional workplace dynamics as a leading cause of burnout. Mental Health America recommends adopting clear guidelines for employee conduct, with a framework for reporting abuse and harassment without fear of retaliation.
- Create space to decompress: Work-life imbalance can be a key cause of burnout. The Cleveland Clinic advises workers struggling with burnout to create clear boundaries, like not checking work emails from home. Businesses can help by adopting policies that encourage self-care activities like exercise and spending time with friends and family.
- Empower employees: According to the Harvard Business Review, a perceived lack of control in the workplace can compound workers’ stress. Giving workers greater control over their schedules and priorities can help them feel able to take on the job’s demands.
- Make professional help available: The CDC advises offering clinical mental health screenings for workers and making sure that counseling is covered by your organization's health insurance policies. The Department of Labor’s Job Accommodation Network suggests adopting a formal return-to-work policy that will accommodate workers who have had to take a leave of absence due to mental illness.
- Don't wait for trouble: Finally, remember that mental health is more than just an absence of symptoms. You’d never advise your staff to neglect their physical health until they develop a diagnosable condition, and we should also work to improve our colleagues’ mental health before problems arise.