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SLC 2023 Preview: Mental Health is Key to Making Workplaces Safer

Sept. 7, 2023
Workplace hazards extend beyond physical hazards such as slick floors, proper tie offs and forklift safety; they also include workers’ mental health and well-being.

There are multiple aspects of wellness. There’s our physical health, our emotional well-being, our social health and our spiritual health, to name a few.

Such a broad definition helps to tell a fuller picture, because it reflects how multifaceted and complex humans are. It also shows how interdependent and interconnected we are, both as individuals and as a society.

Given what we collectively have experienced the past few years and the larger shift toward total worker health, it seems important—and especially relevant—to talk about what has historically been a taboo topic at the workplace: mental health.

Holli Singleton is the director of safety and health services at the Southeastern OSHA Training Institute Education Center at North Carolina State University. Previously, she taught community health and wellness classes at a large healthcare system and provided direct client services at a substance abuse treatment center.

Singleton understands that we can’t check our personal problems at the door when we walk into work, so workplaces shouldn’t ignore such a significant part of their employees. EHS Today caught up with Singleton, who will be speaking about adding metal health as a safety training topic at the Safety Leadership Conference, which will be held September 18-20 in Orlando, Florida.

More information about the conference, including registration, can be found at www.safetyleadershipconference.com. Below is a preview of what to expect from Singleton’s presentation.   

EHS Today: Some people say safety should not "be woke" or stray from its history of focusing on TRIR, SIFs, DART, etc. Why do we need to talk about mental health as a safety training topic?

Singleton: Hopefully, the impetus behind safety efforts isn’t simply about reducing recordables or preventing days away. Even if it is, data supports the idea that helping workers recognize how both their physical AND mental health status impacts safety on the job will lead to fewer injuries.

If a worker has vertigo, they are advised not to use a ladder. If a worker has a heart condition, avoiding strenuous tasks is important. Likewise, if a worker is dealing with a mental health challenge, they need to be prepared to recognize how that challenge might present a safety hazard. Are they distracted? Tired from being awake all night? Having difficulty thinking or concentrating?

The role of a safety professional should include training workers on how to identify and respond to all potential hazards. The inclusion of mental health as a safety topic isn’t “straying” from TRIRs, SIFs and DART. In fact, it is directly related to reducing all these safety indicators.

What do we know now about mental health and safety that we didn't know when the Occupational Safety and Health Act was first passed?

I think there are 3 basic things we understand now that might not have been as clear to us 50 years ago. First, every single one of us has events or periods in our life that present mental health challenges: the loss of a loved one, financial struggles, relationship difficulties or any myriad of issues. Second, struggling to maintain our emotional or mental balance is both common and normal. And third, admitting we are struggling isn’t a sign of weakness.

What is the state of the mental health of today's workforce?

Recent surveys conducted by a variety of organizations have given us a glimpse into the state of mental health in today’s workforce. One particularly eye-opening study was conducted by the American Psychological Association in 2021. The results indicated that 41% of workers whose jobs involve manual labor felt emotionally exhausted “quite frequently” or more in the past 30 workdays. This is nearly two times higher than reported by administrative, managerial and professional workers.

Additionally, the 2022 Deloitte Mental Health and Well-being in the Workplace report revealed that 33% of respondents admitted they have taken time off work due to stress or anxiety. Further, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that depression leads to more than 200 million lost workdays each year at a cost to employers of $17 to $44 billion.

So, it seems the state of mental health among today’s workforce needs attention.

In the past few years, I've witnessed more people talking about their mental health and mental health disorders, but there's still a stigma. What can employers do to create a safe space for employees?

First of all, leadership sets the tone and plays a vital role in establishing a culture where workers feel invited to appropriately share their mental health status. Creating a safe space for employees requires that we all lead by example. Verbalizing appropriately when you feel anxious, stressed or in some way mentally challenged allows others to see those feelings as normal.

Imagine that an employee stops their manager and says, “I have an idea for how we can improve our workflow.” A response of, “There’s a lot on my plate right now and am beginning to feel a little overwhelmed. I want to make sure I give you my best attention. Can we talk more this afternoon after 2 p.m.?” sends a message that it’s OK to say you feel overwhelmed.

However, the manager who says, “I’ve got to get this report done by 2 p.m. and don’t have time for this right now” is conveying an entirely different message. That will have a negative impact on how comfortable workers feel about honestly sharing when they need support.

Some other approaches include providing information about mental health during employee orientation and ensuring mental health services are covered by insurance. Without doubt, the most powerful way to create a mental health-friendly workplace happens at the frontline level on a daily basis. Managers and supervisors who model good mental health practices and are supportive of employees will have the greatest impact. Simply asking workers how they are doing and genuinely listening is your most powerful and effective mental health tool.

What do employers, employees and even safety professionals need to understand about the overall impact mental health has on workplace safety?

Mental health challenges can inhibit focus and concentration. We have all experienced it. It stands to reason, then, that operating equipment or machinery under these conditions can potentially lead to serious injury to oneself or a co-worker. A worker who hasn’t been sleeping well due to anxiety may be prone to forget steps in a process. Likewise, employees experiencing longer-term, more chronic mental health issues may eventually disengage from their work, causing their productivity and quality to diminish.

As we are moving toward a greater awareness of workplace mental health, we need to look for tools to help us all respond proactively. Mentally healthy employees result in a workforce with a reduced safety risk and increased productivity.

What's one thing you hope attendees learn from your session at the Safety Leadership Conference?

I want participants in this session to develop the confidence to talk about mental health as a part of their existing safety and injury prevention training efforts.

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