Should EHS Pros Be Responsible for Workplace Mental Health?

As the debate continues over whether mental health should fall under EHS professionals’ responsibilities, we look at both sides of the argument and find out the best ways to promote good workplace mental health. Part of our Workplace Mental Health blog series.

On 6th June 2018, Safety+Health magazine launched a poll titled Should Mental Health in the Workplace be Part of the Safety Pro’s Responsibility? Six months and 248 comments later , the results are nearly even: 52% respondents voted yes and 48% voted no. The poll is still open, but it’s far from a decisive result.

Who should be accountable for workplace mental health?

The question that’s divided the EHS community; evidenced by the myriad of opinions in the poll’s comment section. One commenter wrote: “No the safety professional should not be responsible for the workers [sic] mental health issue. They can direct them to an HR representative if a concern arises. We are not babysitters.” And another wrote: “As safety professionals. It is our duty to maintain a healthy relationship with all of our employees … If we as safety professionals are ignoring a person’s mental health, we might as well ignore all hazardous conditions that aren’t tangible.” At the moment, mental health and physical health are unequal under Health and Safety Regulations 1981, with a greater focus on the latter. However, despite mental illness being an “invisible” illness, its brunt can be felt in working environments.

How poor mental health can impact the workplace

Poor workplace mental health can cause safety risks. According to the World Health Organization, mental health problems increase error rates and accidents, and result in substandard decision-making. It can mean reduced productivity and an increase in working days lost. In the UK alone, 12.5 million working days were lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2016/2017. Mental health problems can present itself as physical conditions, including heart disease, ulcers and skin rashes – which may result in further days off. And finally, poor mental health can cause in bad working relationships and an increase in disciplinary problems. But what is the economic impact? For UK employers, it costs £35 billion a year – that’s £1,300 for every employee. The largest portion of this cost is the reduced productivity of staff working with their mental illness, and the second largest is job turnover.  300,000 people with long-term mental health problems leave the workforce each year.

What causes poor workplace mental health?

One in four people will experience mental disorders at some point in their lives. At any time, 450 million people worldwide are suffering suffer from a mental illness – making it one of the main causes of disability and ill-health around the globe. Anxiety and depression are the most common; and while stress is not a psychiatric diagnosis, it is closely linked to mental illnesses. Mental health problems can cause stress, and stress can cause mental health problems or make diagnosed mental illnesses worse. Workplaces can be a breeding ground for mental strain – up to a staggering 80% of American workers suffer from substantial work-related stress.

The following workplace factors can cause stress:

  • Long hours,
  • Overload of work,
  • Complex tasks,
  • Lack of variety,
  • Poor workplace ergonomics,
  • Unfavorable working relations and organizational culture.

In response, the individual worker may experience the following:

  • Feeling unable to enjoy yourself/depressed
  • Having a sense of dread
  • Feeling neglected or lonely
  • Finding it hard to concentrate
  • Eating too much or too little
  • Experiencing sleep problems
  • Smoking or drinking alcohol more than usual
  • Experiencing chest pains
  • Having panic attacks
  • Feeling irritable or aggressive
  • Experiencing headaches

Contrary to mental illnesses, employers are legally required to protect staff from workplace stress. HSE have a risk assessment document for employers to carry out and act upon if required.

How the EHS professional can promote workplace mental health

Heather Beach, founder of the Healthy Work Company, said: “It is almost two years since I wrote Mental Health: The next major focus for health and safety professionals? Now, this really does seem old news.” “The question now is how do health and safety professionals apply a prevention first approach to mental health?” “Whilst many health and safety professionals can commission training, few are in a position to develop a strategy around wellbeing and mental health. Those who are successfully doing this are either in very strategic positions themselves, or work closely with HR.” “Either way, this is a topic in which it really behooves the H&S professional to build their coalitions internally.” As mental health sits in the pipeline for inclusion in health and safety regulations, there are actions to take.