By definition, the responsibility of an EHS professional is to provide and maintain a workplace environment that is healthy and safe for all employees, as well as others who are on the premises. Keeping workers safe from physical harm from equipment, vehicles and even other employees is implied in that job description, but there’s a disturbing and growing trend that suggests sometimes the biggest threat to a worker is their own state of mind.
Those who suffer from mental illness carry a stigma that for far too long has seen them treated as a minority, as somehow “less than normal,” whatever that means. In fact, the whole concept of “normal” needs to be reconsidered; according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than half of the population has been or will be diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder at some point in their lives. What’s more, in any given year 20% of Americans will experience a mental illness. So if anything, mental illness is the norm rather than the exception.
All the more reason, than, for EHS professionals to be more proactive in addressing the impact of mental illness on the workplace. Some have estimated that mental illness costs the U.S. economy $200 billion and the worldwide economy roughly $1 trillion in lost productivity. Measuring the costs in terms of the damage mental illness can inflict on those who suffer from it, their families and their co-workers is incalculable. And in far too many cases, the result can lead to suicide.
“Increasing suicide rates in the U.S. are a concerning trend that represent a tragedy for families and communities and impact the American workforce,” says Deb Houry, director of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. “Knowing who is at greater risk for suicide can help save lives through focused prevention efforts.”
Based on the CDC’s research, the jobs most at risk for suicides by males are in construction and mining, while for females the most at-risk jobs are in the arts, design, entertainment, sports and media categories. But as a Reuters report points out, while the CDC can identify the occupations most at risk for suicide, there’s no clear understanding as of yet as to what workplace characteristics might contribute to suicide.
“Despite mental health being something that more and more people are talking about, far too many people are still suffering,” points out Paul Gionfriddo, president and CEO of Mental Health America. “People are simply not receiving the treatment they need to live healthy and productive lives, and too many don’t see a way out.”
For the past 70 years, May has been designated as Mental Health Month. Take this opportunity to familiarize yourself with your company’s employee assistance programs and workplace wellness programs. There are numerous apps available, packaged with various wearable devices, that can monitor stress, heart rate, mood disorders and other early-warning signs of severe depression and suicidal ideation. And make sure your employees are aware of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: (800) 273-TALK.
“We must continue to improve access to care and treatments, and we need to put a premium on early identification and early intervention for everyone with mental health concerns,” urges Gionfriddo. “We must address these mental health concerns before crisis and tragedy strikes.”
10 Steps to a Mentally Healthier Workplace
1. Productive atmosphere. That means the facility is clean and well maintained; that employees feel respected and appreciated; and that intimidation, bullying and harassment are not tolerated.
2. Pay employees a livable wage.
3. Reasonable accommodation. That includes provisions for physical and mental disabilities, which could mean changes to the work space or schedule, or using technologically-adapted equipment.
4. Provide a comprehensive health insurance plan. Such a plan should include smoking-cessation, weight-loss, and substance abuse programs.
5. Open and transparent communication.
6. Employee accountability. Employees must be willing to support each other as well as management.
7. Management accountability. Employees should be encouraged and allowed to provide work-related feedback to their supervisors (anonymously if necessary).
8. Offer opportunities for a work/life balance. That includes thing like flexible schedules and telecommuting (if applicable).
9. Emphasize clear and positive values. Everybody inside and outside the company should know what your organization stands for.
10. Fitness. Encourage employees to be physically active and stay fit. If possible, incentivize employees to join a gym or take fitness classes.—Mental Health America