It’s Time to Assess Your Business’ Mental Health and Safety Practices
By Laura Leo, Senior HR Consultant, Radius
All business leaders, from HR business partners to CEOs, have an interest in promoting workplace health and safety. Beyond any legal and ethical obligations to protect employees, there are strong financial incentives for business leaders to keep health and safety at the forefront of their minds. As an article on the Institute for Safety and Health Management’s website explains, “if employees are safe and healthy, … companies [can] decrease their workers’ compensation medical expenses and insurance costs, reduce the payout for return-to-work program, lower the costs for the job accommodations for injured employees and reduce faulty products.”
It’s clear, then, that savvy businesses keen on optimizing profits and minimizing risks must regularly review health and safety policies and procedures and update them as necessary to ensure alignment with best practices, industry standards and applicable local laws.
Each October at Radius we see business leaders gather for events related to the European Week for Safety and Health at Work and Australia’s National Safe Work Month. Both campaigns should serve as annual reminders to revisit your own company’s health and safety processes and attitudes.
It goes without saying that health and safety is not only an important subject, but a broad one. One aspect of workplace health and safety that is often overlooked by both business leaders and experts is the safeguarding of employees’ mental health, in addition to their physical health. In my view, mental health needs a louder voice in health and safety discussions.
Not surprisingly, this view is also held by organizations that support people with mental ill health. Nick Arvanitis, Head of Workplace Research and Resources at Beyondblue, states that “mentally healthy workplaces are as important to Australian employees as physically safe workplaces, however workplaces are not meeting their expectations.”
Impact of Poor Health and Safety Practices in Your Workplace
The impact of mental ill health on the workplace is overwhelming. The Royal College of Psychiatrists (UK) reports that “mental health problems have a greater impact on people’s ability to work than any other group of disorders.” By way of example, a PwC report explains that in Australia, “mental health conditions have a substantial impact on Australian workplaces — approximately $11 billion per year … [comprising] $4.7 billion in absenteeism, $6.1 billion in presenteeism and $14 6 million in compensation claims.”
Workplace mental (as opposed to physical) ill health tends to go unnoticed and unmentioned in health and safety conversations due in part to lingering social stigmas. The Royal College of Psychiatrists study Mental Health and Work explains that “although the stigma of mental illness affects many aspects of the person’s life, it has the greatest impact on work … and is experienced across all aspects of the employment process.” In addition to the social humiliation that workplace mental health problems may bring, they often cause fatigue, impaired attention, and diminished memory. Regrettably, these symptoms only increase the risk of physical injury or death.
On top of all the discussions around best practices, lowering risks, increasing productivity and indeed the moral justifications for ensuring a mentally healthy workplace, the penalties for breaching various health and safety legislation are increasingly severe.
Should an employer operating in Australia not meet health and safety obligations, for example, it may incur fines of up to AUD $3 million, or over that amount for a corporation in the state of Victoria. There can also be criminal sanctions; an individual in Australia who breaks certain health and safety laws may face up to five years in prison. As a July 2016 article on the Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry website explains, the increased fines in Victoria “come at a poignant time” as “fifteen Victorians have died at work this year, compared to six for the same period last year.”
Within the UK, a breach of health and safety law carries a maximum fine on conviction in the magistrates' court of £20k or imprisonment of up to six months, or both. However, the maximum penalty in the Crown Court is an unlimited fine or imprisonment of up to two years, or both.
These fines remind employers to take health and safety regulations seriously. But while physical health and safety concerns are addressed in most jurisdictions, and improvements are continually made in best-practice workplaces, there is still room for more focus on creating a mentally healthy workplace.
Improving Mental Health and Safety in Your Workplace
Creating a mentally healthy workplace is everyone’s responsibility, but change must start at the top. Business leaders play a critical role in driving practices that promote mental health in the workplace. Here are a few areas to concentrate on when making improvements.
As with workplace physical health considerations, you must first understand and comply with any applicable local workplace health and safety regulations. These regulations may include state or regional laws as well as national ones. If your company operates in multiple countries, you will need to comply with all applicable laws in all your countries of operation. Keeping up-to-date with the changing health and safety laws of multiple countries is difficult, and many companies look to third parties to help them ensure compliance across jurisdictions.
Risk Assessment and Risk Registers
A workplace mental health and safety risk assessment must be undertaken to inform the business of related risks and hazards and recommended improvements. This should be carried out by a competent individual or team who understands both applicable health and safety regulations and how to carry out formal risk assessments.
Assessing job design is a critical element of these projects. For example, companies should avoid assigning highly repetitive tasks for excessive periods, or giving employees no or limited choice of when and how they perform certain tasks. In certain situations, these kinds of problems can easily be improved by combining highly repetitive tasks with other duties.
You should also consider environmental factors in light of workplace mental health and safety. Generally speaking, employers should ensure that employees are not exposed to environmental factors that may adversely affect their behavior or wellbeing. For example, poorly lit work areas, or very cold or hot conditions, are often easily improved.
Social and psychosocial factors are likely to have the highest impact on employee mental health in the workplace, so it is important to concentrate on this area when assessing your business. The following should be considered red flags:
- Emotionally demanding work without the opportunity to discuss the demands
- Bullying and harassment
- Inconsistent management processes
Possible solutions to the above problems include the following, in order:
- Develop and implement communication processes for employees, such as regular meetings
- Develop policies and procedures to prevent bullying and harassment
- Develop policies and procedures for management to promote consistency and fairness
It should be noted that solving problems related to employee communication, bullying and harassment, and inconsistent management can take time and involves more than simply developing policies and procedures. Cultures and attitudes must change, which may require additional external support.
Finally, you must keep a register of risks and hazards that you discover, and the actions being taken to address them. The risk register should be reviewed and updated on a regular basis, with actions taken as necessary.
Policy, Training and Communication
Once all risks and hazards are understood, the information should be used to formulate your organization’s health and safety policy. There is no one-size-fits-all policy in this case, and yours should be unique to your business and employees. That said, a compliant health and safety policy typically includes the following three sections:
- Health and safety policy statement of intent
- Responsibilities for health and safety issues (for both employer and employees)
- Safe working procedures (including mental health matters such as stress, alcohol and drugs in addition to physical health and safety matters)
The final element to implementing sound health and safety policies and procedures (other than continual review and improvement, of course) is training and communication. This element is absolutely fundamental in the success or failure of creating a mentally healthy workplace. Unless employees fully understand the organization’s health and safety policy and procedures, and know that leadership places a premium on following them, then all efforts in the area will be wasted.
As noted, business leaders play a critical role in driving practices that promote mental health in the workplace, and this includes communication. Exactly how workplace practices and procedures are communicated will need to fit with company culture in order to be well received. That said, any communication from the highest levels of leadership will tend to be taken more seriously throughout an organization than communications from lower-level managers or other employees.
Creating a mentally healthy workplace is critical to running a smooth and efficient business. The principles of doing so are not that different from ensuring a physically safe and healthy workplace, including developing and implementing sound, well-communicated policies and procedures that are tailored to your unique organization. And as with all employer obligations, health and safety legislation is complex, constantly changing and varies by jurisdiction. Failure to comply can be costly for your organization and in some cases may even involve criminal liability.
I would like to sum up with statistics that underscore the employer costs of mental health problems and the importance of combating mental ill health with sound policies and practices. Mind, a UK-based nonprofit that provides advice and support related to mental health problems, has found the following (quoted verbatim from Mind’s website):
- More than one in five (21 per cent) agreed that they had called in sick to avoid work when asked how workplace stress had affected them
- 14 per cent agreed that they had resigned and 42 per cent had considered resigning when asked how workplace stress had affected them
- 30 per cent of staff disagreed with the statement “I would feel able to talk openly with my line manager if I was feeling stressed”
I encourage employers everywhere to take October’s European Week for Safety and Health at Work and the Australian National Safe Work Month as timely reminders to revisit their workplace health and safety policies and practices.