We’ve all had one of those days where nothing seems to go right, when the winds of misfortune are so fierce that for every step forward we take at least a dozen back, and we start wishfully thinking, “This would be a great time to get away from all these stressors and do some of those fun things I always said I’d do if I had more time.” It’s just a daydream, of course—we never actually give up because somehow we find the energy to get through the day.
But what if that “one bad day” becomes a bad week and then a bad month, and then extends into a bad year, with no end in sight? What then? And no, I’m not talking about the pandemic... at least, not yet.
EHS Today has reported on occupational health and safety for well over 80 years, so the chances are extremely good that if there’s a topic relevant to workplace safety, we’ve covered it. But there are some topics that, no matter how often we discuss them, cannot possibly be talked about enough because despite all we know and learned, the situation just keeps getting worse.
We focus a lot on workplace injuries—how they happen, where they happen and how to prevent them from happening. Falls from heights, chemical spills, heat stress, confined spaces, electrical hazards, combustible dust—these are all well-known safety concerns, and creative people have developed personal protective equipment (PPE) and other technologies to help keep the workforce from harm’s way. But the most prevalent cause of disability for U.S. workers isn’t a fall from heights or any of those other physical hazards we mentioned—it’s mental illness.
Studies have shown that more workdays are lost to mental-health-related absenteeism than any other illness or injury. Those studies, by the way, were conducted before the pandemic; as you can imagine, the incidences of anxiety and depression among workers isolated from friends, family and co-workers have only gotten worse since COVID-19 reared its ugly head. And while there are now vaccines for COVID-19, there’s no vaccine or PPE or any kind of off-the-shelf equipment that offers mental health protection.
Let’s face it: This past year has been a stressful one for just about everybody. Staying vigilant has always been part and parcel of the jobs of safety professionals, but nowadays the full responsibility of safety leadership has seemingly been thrust upon the entire world population—and not just for a single work shift, a week or even a month. Safety has become a non-stop, round-the-clock, 24/7/365-and-counting preoccupation for everyone. And that burden has proven to be too much for too many of us.
In a recent report developed by Mental Health America (MHA) conducted during the pandemic, 85% of the 5,000 respondents say that workplace stress affects their mental health, and 83% say they feel emotionally drained from their work. This study, involving U.S. workers in nearly 20 different industries, reveals that workers are more stressed than ever before—not just those who have experienced long periods of anxiety, depression or suicidal thoughts, but everybody. And here’s a chilling statistic for safety professionals and, indeed, all employees: With so many workers feeling stressed and burnt out right now, nearly one-fourth (23%) of employees say they don’t care what happens to their colleagues or clients. That’s pretty much the polar opposite of a workforce that’s actively engaged in sustaining a culture of safety.
Fortunately, the survey also discloses what the best avenue to improving the mental health of all employees is: management support. Companies need to make employee mental health a priority, says Paul Gionfriddo, president and CEO of MHA. That begins by encouraging people to talk about it. Some of the tangible support employers can provide, he says, includes: health insurance with mental health benefits; formal and informal workplace mental health programs; stress management resources; and “a workplace culture that values and rewards openness about mental health.”
Yes, it may seem like we’re all caught up in that Bob Seger song, each of us running against the wind of a relentless COVID-19 storm. But by recognizing that the struggle will persist for many of our colleagues even after the pandemic ends, and by offering support whenever and wherever needed, we can help each other to keep moving forward... together.