Mental Health, Risk and Safety – Part 1 (see part 2 here)
One of our most popular articles ever! Republished by Request
Understanding, awareness and response to mental health issues at work is challenging. There are some particular challenges that mental health holds for risk and safety people. The purpose of this article is to provide some tips for tackling mental health at work, highlight cultural constraints in the risk and safety industry that limit understanding of mental health and, provide links and resources to help better understanding mental health at work.
One of the big challenges for risk and safety people in understanding mental health at work is its invisibility. Risk and safety professions are preoccupied with workspace, hazards and visible risks. The thinking of safety people in particular is mostly in the rational and irrational space, not non-rational (aRational) headspace. There is little education in the safety sector about the psychology of risk, the unconscious in decision making and non-rational drivers of behaviour. It seems the industry is great at expressing empathy when it perceives physical damage to a person, but when the damage is not visible empathy is hard to come by. When safety people do a ‘hazard hunt’ they are great at seeking out every petty physical factor and yet miss the majority of psychological and cultural factors that really matter in risk.
Recently I have been asked to provide training and support for a large non-government provider with 120 mental health support workers. My role is to facilitate development and learning of the four Managers. The drive for writing this article has been stimulated by this work. I can’t think of many tougher gigs than mental health support work. The only thing that is predictable in mental health support work is that everything is unpredictable, it is in itself a stressful job. I certainly couldn’t stay working myself in that area for long, I simply burnt out. I think most times I was asked to work as a safety advisor was because of my knowledge and skills in the area of mental health. I think we tend to lose sight of Work, HEALTH and Safety (WHS). I remember being regularly marginalized at work because I advocated for those with mental health conditions. However, it doesn’t take long to press the nerve with a CEO wedged between production and safety to find out that someone close to them has a mental health issue. This often changed the willingness of the CEO to seek culture change in the organisation.
I remember my first experience with mental health was with my best friend, Sam. Sam was a star at school, whilst we struggled to attract attention from the girls Sam was a magnet. He was handsome, a sports star and extroverted. Sam was the person we looked to enviously and wished we had his charm and wit, his flair was matched by his sweeping blond hair and engaging full smile. Sam met the girl of his dreams in his young twenties and married and had two children. He worked in the public service and it seemed like he had it all, a great house, lovely family, star in A grade cricket and other sports and happiness personified. However, one day all this came crashing down, Sam said it was like one day he felt great and the next day a black cloud fell on him, like an instant chemical imbalance. Sam’s depression was vicious; he survived on medication but hated its dependency. One day he left his wife, family and home, soon checked into a motel and ended his life. Few of us really understood his personal turmoil, his torment was mostly unspoken and invisible, it seems many people didn’t want to know, Sam sought nothing more than peace from the relentless trap of his own condition.
The statistics about mental health are significant:
· 3.2 million Australians experience some form of mental health condition across the full spectrum of disorders.
· The latest mental health survey conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics revealed that around one person in five (20%) had experienced a mental health disorder in the last 12 months and over twice that number (45%, or nearly half the Australian population) had experienced one at some time in their lives.
For a profile on mental health statistics go to
Improving Mental Health at Work – Ten Do’s and Don’ts
Creating a climate of well being at work requires a few simple adjustments, here are some tips:
1. The first thing one can do is modify the current discourse (use of power) and language at work. It seems we are far too quick to call, label and name people as idiots and dickheads (eg. recent article ). Name calling and projections of superiority at work simply stifle communication and confession. One of the most important tools for tackling mental health at work is establishing a climate of confession. It is only when a person with a mental health condition is able to confess their condition that understanding and support can commence. We have to be also careful not to feed the nature of the person’s mental health eg. enabling OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) to further fuel their disorder.
2. Dispose of any mantras and language that demand absolutes for example, zero harm and zero tolerance. There is no room for compassion, understanding and tolerance in cultures that are rigid, authoritarian and absolute. Zero language and discourse is one of the best ways to suppress confession and reporting. Zero discourse actually creates anxiety and depression because of the fundamental dynamic is discordant with human fallibility and reality. In zero harm organisations there is only space for the super human, weakness, mistakes and vulnerability must not go unpunished.
3. Seek out effective training in mental health eg. https://www.mhfa.com.au/cms/
4. Create a climate at work that is less fearful and more welcoming. People with mental health conditions already have a significant level of fear of bullying, victimization and distrust. A climate of fear at work reduces opportunities for communication and seeking support.
5. Focus more on skills in communication, consultation and conversation for supervisors and managers. Human Dymensions programs (http://www.humandymensions.com/services-a-programs) focus on developing these skills, on human judgment and decision making and the unconscious. The Human Dymensions iKNOW program is focused on wellbeing and resilience of organisations and people. If you would like training or support in these areas contact firstname.lastname@example.org
6. Think more about the unseen in risk, reduce the preoccupation with prioritizing the physicality’s of risk.
7. Create a learning organisation climate rather than a punishing organisation climate. Nothing is more powerful in suppressing communication about mental health than the idea that information is learning. Experiential learning and non-didactic methods of learning are the most effective in enabling confession, communication and change. Telling cultures crush learning and openness. Telling organisations foster secrecy and non-confession.
8. Encourage the visibility and normalization of Employee Assistance Programs (EAP). Despite the fact that mental health is so high in the population, the use of free EAP programs averages approximately 3% in most organisations that provide an EAP service. Creating a culture that normalizes EAP use actually saves the cost of the service in productivity gains ten fold.
9. Create a climate of inclusion; watch out for those on the outer, who don’t seem to fit in. It’s easy to punish the ‘weirdos’ and ‘eccentrics’ wave them goodbye out of the organisation. Zero harm culture is great for revolving doors, SKUTA (swift kick up the arse), punishing culture and dishing out ‘the sack’.
10. Know and engage with mental health support services. The best thing is to invite the services into the workplace on an informal basis. Rather than have presentations, pay the experts to become a part of the organizational culture, just let them hang about and have coffee and lunch with the people, the rest will just happen.
A Special Note on Comorbidity
If you have not heard of comorbidity before you are not alone. Comorbidity simply means the co-occurrence of one or more diseases or disorders in an individual. Comorbid disorders are common, especially in specialist mental health and addiction services. People who have comorbid mental health disorders usually have a range of other accompanying factors that complicate the mental health disorder eg. alcohol, prescription drugs, illicit drugs, dual disorders (anxiety, depression, anger, OCD, distress and self harm). Comorbid people have poorer outcomes than those who have a single disorder. For example, the treatments of alcohol dependence and depression both tend to be less effective when conducted in the presence of the other disorder than when comorbidity is not present. A few links below will assist understanding.
Mental Health Links and Resources