Mental health and wellbeing initiatives present safety professionals with an opportunity to strengthen their span of influence and mutually reinforce links between other functions such as HR, L&D and OD, according to an expert in the space.
A focus on mental health is akin to physical safety, and when organisations seek to effect change in workers’ psychological health and wellbeing, there can be a focus of resources and change efforts on the individual worker, said Traci Carse, workplace psychologist with SafetyWorks Group.
“For sustainable and genuine improvement, safety leaders will need to ensure strategies and interventions are aimed at the organisational-level context as well as group and individual-level,” she said.
“A true and functioning coordination and collaboration across work units is important to leverage expertise, successfully capture all aspects of activity and ensure compatibility and harmony between the various domains within a psychological health and wellbeing strategy. “For instance, in the absence of integration, it is difficult to effectively embed positive and protective practices in both the broader strategic and operational activity areas.
“Overall impact would therefore be reduced.”
Carse, who recently spoke at the SIA Sydney Safety Symposium 2017, also observed that the level of knowledge and expertise within the domain of workplace health, safety and wellbeing has “increased exponentially” within the past one to two years.
The biggest improvement has been in understanding the various characteristics of the psychosocial work environment, such as identifying and managing psychosocial risks and hazards, and in seeking to improve the mental health outcomes for workers.
However, Carse added that there is still room for improvement in proactively supporting mental health, and demonstrating to workers that an organisation is active in their support.
A recent SuperFriend Survey Report, for example, found that 1 in 2 workers are not aware of any workplace mental health and wellbeing policies in place at their workplace, and only 1 in 6 workers believe the mental health and wellbeing policies at their workplace are being implemented effectively.
While an organisation has many levers to pull in proactively creating the conditions for people to psychologically thrive, feel engaged at work, and perform at their best, Carse said that typically an organisation begins its psychological health and wellbeing journey from a traditional somewhat limited, compliance-driven perspective, and/or a focus on areas that are particularly visible (such as stress claims).
“Sometimes there seems to be a fear that if we start talking about mental health, raise workers’ awareness and open the door to discuss mental illness, there will be an increase in the number of stress claims,” she said.
“This view warrants a respectful challenge. You only have to hear one story (and there are many) about how a manager initiated a conversation with a worker for whom they had a concern, and how that simple demonstration of care stopped that person from self-harming, to realise how important it is to promote conversation about mental health issues.”
“Both a compliance-driven and a piecemeal approach (such as yoga, fruit bowls and EAPs) provide limited positive impact on sustainable improvement to individual outcomes and the business bottom line,” said Carse.
A better approach is for safety leaders to adopt a holistic and integrated approach using the three overarching areas as avenues for influence: a) prevention of psychological injury, b) promotion of positive mental health and wellbeing and c) supporting those in need.
“An integrated approach can then guide the development of a tailored and structural management strategy for psychological health and wellbeing,” said Carse.
More sophisticated and effective measurement and tracking of mental health and wellbeing, as well as effects of interventions (such as regular mental health and wellbeing audits and correlational analysis with workplace psychosocial drivers) require a solid understanding of the relationship between work stressors, risk and protective factors, and individual and organisational outcomes to measure (and a degree of research skill thrown in to the mix), she said.
“Again, if safety leaders proactively cultivate collaboration across work units, this will facilitate insightful cross-correlational analysis with interrelated business and performance metrics,” said Carse.
“We are already seeing a greater appreciation of the benefit of effectively equipping and supporting managers and supervisors to create the immediate (local) work conditions to best support people to thrive at work.”
Some of this relates to prevention of psychological injury through good job design, an area in which Carse said safety professionals have valuable knowledge to offer.
“In addition, managers often say they would like to develop an increased confidence and skill in proactively promoting mental health and wellbeing, and providing support for workers with mental health issues,” she said.
“Safety leaders within organisations are well positioned to assist with skill-building training and coaching to facilitate this capability.
“A challenge perhaps, might be to sufficiently resource this and other psychological health and wellbeing work streams, alongside competing demands in relation to other safety improvement drivers.”