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Long Night’s Journey into a New Day

June 1, 2022
How to protect employees who may not know how to ask for help.

What mask do you wear to work every day? No, I’m not talking about a COVID face mask or a NIOSH-approved N95 respirator or any other type of PPE designed to keep contaminants out of the atmosphere. I mean the kind of mask that camouflages certain aspects of your personality from your colleagues—the kind of things that maybe your family and a few close friends know about you, or maybe even nobody else knows about you. Your job is to focus on safety, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into you feeling safe enough to share all of your hopes and fears with your co-workers. Nor should you expect—and certainly you shouldn’t insist—that your employees will share every intimate thought and feeling they have with you, either. As Longfellow once observed, everybody has a secret sorrow which the world knows not.

Your job is to keep your workers safe from harm, and it’s proven to be a big enough task just to ensure their physical safety that companies assemble entire safety teams to avoid all kinds of accidents, incidents and injuries of a physical nature. But as the pandemic has shown, and as the opioid crisis showed even before COVID-19 arrived, and as the increasing withdrawal of people from the workplace even as the pandemic wanes is showing right now, the state of an employee’s mental health is just as important—maybe even more important—as their physical health.

But how does a safety professional properly protect an employee’s mental well-being, particularly when you don’t even know what it is that’s threatening them? How do you protect a person from something they themselves might not even be able to identify or define?

“To be safe, one must also feel safe,” points out John Dony, vice president of thought leadership at the National Safety Council. “Feeling unsafe at work is hurting people, and more must be done to combat this in a holistic way. Employers everywhere must accept responsibility for their impact on workers on and off the clock by implementing safety policies and procedures that protect the whole person, including both physically and mentally.”

In a recent study of more than 11,000 U.S. employees conducted by Mental Health America (MHA), nearly three-quarters (71%) of respondents said they find it difficult to concentrate at work due to stress and distractions of various kinds. The pandemic is no doubt a major contributor of stress and anxiety for all workers, considering that less than half (48%) responded the same way in a 2018 survey. Whatever the causes, employees are feeling overwhelmed like never before, and the situation doesn’t seem to be improving even as COVID recedes. In a Robert Half survey of 2,400 U.S. professionals, 41% said they feel more burned out now than they did a year ago. And here’s one more statistic to consider: 76% of workers report being frequently tired at work, according to a Zippia study of 1,500 U.S. workers, with stress and anxiety being the two leading causes.

Imagine, then, the challenges safety leaders face knowing a significant number of their employees—many of whom work in hazardous, high-risk situations—are stressed out, burned out, distracted and overtired.

Andrew Faas, founder of the Faas Foundationa nonprofit that supports the creation of psychologically healthy, safe and fair workplaces—says there’s a need for leaders “to reduce, and ideally eliminate, the tremendous amount of unnecessary stress workers face, largely because the conditions necessary for active and positive engagement do not exist in their workplace.”

The MHA’s 2022 Mind the Workplace report attempts to answer the question: How can companies meaningfully support employee mental health? The answers, as you would expect, are not quick fixes. However, they do directly address the reality of the situation: investment of time, intention and action from all levels of a company; employee empowerment; and full managerial support (see sidebar, “What Can You Do?”).

The main takeaway from all of these recent studies is that safety professionals don’t need a degree in mental health counseling to help keep their employees out of harm’s way, nor do they need to be mind readers who able to peer into the deepest recesses of their employees’ psyches. They just need to do what they already do best: Pay close attention to their people.

What Can You Do?

Safety leaders can contribute to a mentally healthier workforce in the following ways:

  • Cultivate relationships built on trust and respect with employees.
  • Apply active listening skills and emotional intelligence in daily interactions with employees.
  • Provide appropriate guidance and assist employees with workload management.
  • Be aware of and noticing the signs of increased stress or burnout in employees.
  • Encourage employees to take time off when needed.

Source: Mental Health America’s 2022 Mind the Workplace 

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