Human Factors Training, States of Mind
Psychological Health and Safety
Tom Hardin, Owner, NASP

This overview of psychological health and safety is intended to introduce you to the overall concept of dealing with psychosocial hazards in the workplace. Addressing psychological health and safety in the workplace involves complying with ISO 45003 Occupational Health and Safety Management, Psychological Health, and Safety at Work, and involves much in-depth training and assessment. Developed solely to introduce you to the concept of psychological health and safety, this overview is not an unabridged commentary. This overview functions as more of a synopsis of the many psychosocial hazards that exist in the workplace. We will on be discussing a few of those specific hazards here.

Our jobs can significantly impact our mental health. Employers are largely held responsible for protecting their staff’s physical and psychological health. Psychological health and well-being have long been major issues in the workplace, with stress, burnout, anxiety, and depression costing economies billions and resulting in high levels of long-term sickness, absence, and consequent disruption.

While prevalent, psychological health is an area of safety management that many organizations feel inadequately equipped to deal with. Too often, it has been dealt with superficially, reactively rather than proactively, or completely ignored. A psychologically safe workplace is one where employees are as free of stresses that affect their work performance as possible.

Maintaining a psychologically safe workplace has a range of potential benefits: reduced expenses due to mental health-related absenteeism, employee burnout, and accidents; better employee engagement; increased staff retention; and increased productivity are all more likely outcomes when awareness and effort are placed on psychological health.

Emphasizing mental health will also reduce the risk of workplace accidents caused by effects like complacency, frustration, fatigue, distraction, and rushing. These are the specific examples that will be discussed in this course. In human factors training these examples are known as “States of Mind”. The effects of these mental health risks alter the state of mind by lessening the workers’ thoughtful attention to their actions and surroundings. These lapses in situational awareness occur when employees fail to stay clearly focused on one’s tasks and surroundings. This could easily result in failures to recognize potential hazards or risks in a timely manner. For example, defensive driving is situational awareness. When a driver is constantly mindful of their speed and road conditions and always aware of the traffic in front, behind, and beside them, they are situationally aware and will react quickly when needed to avoid an accident. Workers who are not situationally aware are more likely to overlook a hazard or risk resulting in an accident.

Psychological health and safety deals with how we think, feel, and behave. While ‘traditional’ health and safety practices are concerned with physical risks, psychological health and safety focuses on the mental health and well-being of workers. So, it is vital to understand that workplace mental health issues cannot be understood and addressed in the same ways that physical challenges often are handled. Many psychological health and safety risk factors are often hidden, with greater risk factors existing outside of the workplace. In these situations, the employer is not responsible for those hazards but must realize that the presence of these effects on their workers can make them more prone to accidents.

Regardless of the origin of the hazard, many employees are resistant to requesting help for these types of issues. This may be due to the shame or stigma often associated with mental conditions like depression, anxiety, or substance abuse. So, the primary tool employers can use to identify and combat workplace mental health issues is to understand psychosocial risk factors. Psychosocial risk factors are any issue or condition that may negatively affect a person’s psychological response to their duties at work or their relationships with supervisors or colleagues.

To that end, these are the five psychosocial hazards that will be covered in this overview: Complacency, Frustration, Fatigue, Distraction, and Rushing. These are sometimes referred to as states of mind because they affect the worker’s state of mind in ways that may reduce their attention to their work.

Why do companies with a strong and enforced approach to complying with safety regulations and best practices still have injuries? It’s because workplace injuries are not prevented through compliance alone.

Injuries are often the result of worker actions or lack of appropriate actions resulting from complacency and other human factors like rushing, frustration, and fatigue. This often leads to a failure to follow even the most well-written and well-taught safety-related policies and procedures. To the physical safety regulations, NASP offers a wide range of courses, online teachings, and in-person trainings, and now to those psychological health and safety risks that abound, we offer the following:


Complacency is just a sense of satisfaction that often derives from continued success, feelings of being ignored, or monotony, and it affects most workers in every workplace. It often manifests as a feeling of security or confidence that leads to a lack of awareness. It leads workers to let their guard down and not be mindful of hazards in their work process. This can create serious risks for the affected worker and others in the workplace. Since it appears without conscious recognition, everyone must be on the lookout for complacency and remain fully aware.

Even a lack of accidents can lead to complacency which foments a flawed perception of risk. The more someone performs a particular task without a problem occurring, the more they come to feel nothing bad will happen. They come to think that since it hasn’t happened it won’t happen. Familiarity breeds complacency and results in discounting hazards. Discounting the hazard increases the risk level until the risk’s potential is realized and an accident occurs. Situationally aware workers remain focused on their tasks and their surroundings. Once that level of awareness erodes, workers may perform their tasks on “auto-pilot,” moving from step to step without thinking critically about their actions. This increases the potential for risks and resulting injuries. Complacency permits us to be more easily distracted, which divides our attention or prevents concentration.

Complacency is not exclusively about a loss of focus. It can also result from developing inappropriate expectations. If you work closely with a co-worker or team, you may get used to their performance and expect the same performance each time the task is performed, causing you to neglect to verify important procedures or occurrences. Those diminished expectations can create risks and cause you to overlook the signs of complacency in your co-workers.

Complacency can be companywide as well. Organizational complacency will ignore normal safety procedures and result in the elevation of the level of risk in the facility. Organizational complacency may result in a lesser level of attention to overall safety. It may show as a gradual loosening of compliance enforcement with company safety programs, policies, and procedures. It may result in less rigorous safety training. It can also result in a gradual decline in management’s dedication to the company’s safety culture.

It almost seems counter-intuitive to say that a lack of accidents and injuries can increase the chance of accidents and injuries, but that is exactly what we are saying here. A lack of something happening increases our assumptions that it will not happen, which results in over-confidence and a misguided sense of satisfaction. That complacency then results in accidents and injuries.

So, how do we mitigate complacency? One way is with human factors training. We enhance the workers’ awareness of the potential dangers of complacency and help them learn to avoid or at least minimize it. Basic warnings like “Work Safely” and “Be Careful” will not suffice. Realizing the potential of accidents and injuries and keeping that in the forefront of their minds when they don’t actually see them occurring can be a difficult task. One method of mitigating risk here is through simulations of accidents and injuries that exercise an employee’s response capabilities, including things like HAZMAT incidents or situations involving emergency medical care are good examples. A simulated injury that requires affected workers to practice emergency procedures not only improves those skill levels, but it reminds those workers of what could happen.

Another training-related method to place safety at the forefront of an employee’s mind is to teach all workers to watch for indicators of workplace complacency. These indicators may include:

  • Dissatisfaction with your work
  • Lack of motivation
  • Missing steps in work processes
  • Frequent near-misses or incidents
  • Negative changes in the state of mind
  • Noticeable increase or decrease in communication
  • Tardiness for meetings or shifts


Frustration is defined as the feeling of being upset or annoyed, especially because of the inability to change or achieve something. The primary danger associated with frustration in the workplace is the distraction of the worker’s mind while they are heavily preoccupied with thoughts of the situation and how to deal with it. This leaves less mental processing available for other things. Our brains have limited cognizance. When we assign too much of our attention to unrelated things, our awareness is diminished. That may be the time they drop a tool into the rotating part of a machine and mindlessly reach for it, catching their hand or clothing in a machine.

A worker may have certain expectations concerning the workplace that, if not met, result in frustration. If a worker holds those preconceived notions that are routinely not met, they will become frustrated. It is important to determine whether these expectations are realistic or not. If they are not, they must be adjusted to become more accurate. If they are appropriate, we must determine why they are not being met and take corrective action.

Generalized frustrations may result from many causes and may originate from outside the workplace. COVID-19 is a great example of these vexations because of the various reactions people had regarding masking, vaccinations, etc., and the resulting social anxiety and expectations it created between workers, contractors, managers, and even clients. This uncertainty and nervousness can cause frustration.

Frustrations can also occur from perceived pressures in the workplace. These may occur due to pressures created by the organization, managers, supervisors, or co-workers. These often result from perceived unrealistic expectations of the worker. In these cases, it is again necessary to determine whether these presumptions exist and, if so, who needs to adjust, the management or the workers.

Then there is the pressure or frustration the individual worker puts on themselves. This may develop when a worker places unrealistic desires on themselves. This disappointment must be addressed by adjusting expectations as appropriate.

Environmental frustrations are general to the workplace. They include things like organizational culture, morale, fear of mistreatment, and quality of work-life balance. These frustrations could be self-inflicted or organizationally induced. Again, bringing expectations into a proper balance is the key.


Fatigue is defined as being physically or mentally exhausted by hard work, exertion, strain, etc. Fatigue can greatly diminish our level of concentration. It is important to realize that fatigue can be either physical or mental, and both can result in accidents in the workplace. Fatigue in the workplace greatly increases the potential for an accident or injury. Tired workers make mistakes.

Sleep is vital to overall health. 43% of workers report they are sleep deprived. 62% of night shift workers say they suffer sleep loss. Adults need an average of seven to nine hours of sleep each night, but 30% of people report averaging less than six hours. Chronic sleep deprivation causes depression, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and other illnesses. More than 70 million Americans suffer from a sleep disorder, and fatigue has cost employers $136 billion a year in health-related lost productivity.

Another major fatigue-based problem for companies occurs in driving and transportation. 328,000 drowsy driving crashes occur annually. 109,000 of those drowsy driving crashes result in an injury, and about 6,400 ends in fatality. Driving after going more than 20 hours without sleep is the equivalent of driving with a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.08% – the legal limit in most states. Fatigued driving is impaired driving, but while we wouldn’t allow a friend to drive drunk, we rarely take the keys away from our tired friends or insist they take a nap before heading out on the road. Research shows that we are You are three times more likely to be in a car crash if you are excessively tired.

Solutions for fatigue can present another set of problems. The only sound solution for fatigue is adequate sleep. But many people turn to stimulants and other drugs to stay awake. Some of them may keep you awake but not alert. Most stimulants have a derogatory effect on perception and judgment and so present their own set of risks. Workers experiencing routine exhaustion should consult a physician.


Distractions are a leading cause of on-the-job injuries and can also lead to costly mistakes, lost productivity, and property damage. Losing focus and being distracted, even for a moment, can result in a simple mistake like a dropped tool or a life-threatening event. Even the smallest disturbance replaces a current thought with an intruding thought. That intruding thought may diminish a worker’s awareness of present risks. Even though it may not be possible to eliminate all intrusive thoughts in the workplace, it’s important to recognize when distractions are likely to happen and take steps to minimize them.

If distractions from outside of work are noticeably affecting how well you can focus on the job, it’s important to act. You may need to take time off, reach out to a supervisor, or consider seeking additional support. A recent study revealed that the typical worker experiences as many as 56 disruptions per workday. The study also indicates that employees take about 2 hours per day to refocus their attention back to their priority work after being distracted, and these interferences result in an average of twice as many mistakes.

Most of these distractions occur from:

  • Cell phones
  • Emails
  • Background noise
  • People interruptions
  • Clutter
  • Multi-tasking
  • Co-workers
  • Micro-management
  • Hunger
  • Needlessly strict policies
  • Meetings
  • Fatigue

Not all distractions can be eliminated but addressing each of the above common problems can reduce them. Another important method of mitigation is to minimize both the occurrence and frequency of such interruptions. It is also important to teach workers that when distracted, they should cease the performance of other tasks. Trying to continue to work while distracted is the cause of accidents.


What causes most people to rush? Sometimes it’s poor planning. Sometimes the time allotted for the performance of a task is not realistic, but the specified time appears to the worker as a mandate, and they attempt to finish within the allowed time by hurrying through the task. In a healthy workplace, the worker must feel comfortable in recognizing the specified time is inappropriate and be allowed to communicate that to management free of consequence.

Sometimes the decision to rush is self-imposed by a worker who wants to finish quickly so they can move on to a more desirable thing. Many years ago, an interesting study was undertaken to consider the reasons for injuries to firefighters while fighting a fire. The study resulted in a general change in the fire service which told firefighters not to run on a fire scene. That seemed completely counter-intuitive since a building was being destroyed by fire and people could be trapped inside. Of course, firefighters still run today, but they are much more mindful concerning the justification to run. If your child is hanging out of the window of your home, screaming for help as the house burns behind them, you will see firefighters run and take even more serious risks. But you are much less likely to see them run for more mundane tasks. Consideration of this study led firefighters to realize that in many cases running may actually cause their task to take longer because of the tendency to fall due to the many trip hazards on a fire scene. Over time they realized that running often presented an unnecessary risk. The same applies to your workplace. Rushing creates mistakes and accidents, which may increase the time required to complete the task.

It seems like we’re trumpeting the obvious when we say rushing a task increases the chances of an accident or injury, but we all need to be reminded that it is true. We should consider the reason why we are hurrying. Often someone is moving too quickly for a reason that does not warrant being hasty. If they are rushing to take a break, they should have scheduled breaks that are the same length, no matter what time they start. But other times, there is a reason we are in a hurry. When quickness is necessary, we can defer to that famous gunfighter and lawman, Wyatt Earp. He said, “Fast is fine, but accuracy is final. You must learn to be slow in a hurry.” There is wisdom in that strange-sounding instruction. Old West gunfights were nothing like what we see on television. Those that drew their gun and fired from the hip almost always missed. The gunfight was not necessarily won by the first to fire his weapon. It was not the case that the quickest draw was always the winner. A quick draw was an important part of the process, but taking the extra split second required to aim was more important. An accurate saying from those times was. “He who aims wins”.

If our employees work on a fast-moving project or process, they can learn to “be slow in a hurry.” Like those gunfighters, they realize that leaving out a step required for safety is not an acceptable function of rushing. Instead of “He who aims wins”, we must say “He who skips nothing survives”.


Psychological Health and Safety largely deals with mental or emotional processes that have some potential to create a state of mind that may result in some lessening of due concern or care that could become a causal factor in an injury. Dealing with psychosocial hazards is an expansive undertaking that requires special skills and a determination to consider all potential problem areas. Dealing with these hazards requires an ongoing effort that is continually updated and improved, especially since these hazards appear, disappear, and often reappear as their causal factors and their effects on workers come and go. Considering psychosocial hazards is an important step in workplace safety as it takes us beyond our usual approach of considering actions, or a lack of action, that may cause injury. Consideration of psychosocial hazards takes us closer to the point of origin of the problem by helping us consider the thought process or state of mind that results in the actions, or a lack of action, that may cause injury.

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About the Author


Pete Nemmers

Pete Nemmers serves as NASP’s Director of Training Development, bringing a wealth of expertise to the organization. With a background rooted in safety and training, Pete plays a pivotal role in shaping the training programs offered by NASP. Pete ensures that NASP remains at the forefront of safety education, equipping professionals with the knowledge and skills necessary to navigate and excel in the dynamic field of safety.
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