Four industry leaders give their opinion on whether mental wellbeing is drawing attention away from more significant occupational health hazards.
Andy Anderson CMIOSH
Group health and safety manager, property and procurement, Sage
Mental wellbeing needs a high level of attention. However, it cannot be prioritised over more direct occupational health impacts at work, predominantly exposure to hazardous substances. Exposure to carcinogens is the number one reason for serious ill health and early death in the workforce and must continue to have the right levels of attention and resources. The causes are obvious and direct and therefore must always take priority over mental health. Employers must be regularly assessing their risk position and managing it effectively, with the direct foreseeable impact on life expectancies among workers the first priority.
Chris Clark CMIOSH
SHE adviser, Morgan Sindall Group
Occupational diseases usually lie in wait until we retire or are at our happiest, and then they pounce. Mental health costs an estimated 12.8 million working days. But because in most instances we can sense a change in someone’s attitudes and behaviours that indicate a possible mental health issue, do we now prioritise mental health over occupational health? Is it easier to hand a colleague to mental health services or employee assistance programmes and feel like we are enacting change rather than dealing with occupational health risks as they are technical, do not immediately affect us and rarely affect the company statistics?
Antonio Javier Gaspar Marichal CMIOSH
Health, safety and wellbeing manager, Sheffield Hallam University
One explanation for the rapid acceptance and growth of the ‘wellbeing industry’ is that organisations find it difficult to reflect on how their structures, processes and, ultimately, decisions contribute to employee wellbeing. Light-hearted initiatives bring some comfort to organisational decision-makers as they can say to stakeholders that they are doing something to tackle the issue. Tertiary interventions in isolation are not sufficient. Leaders should support a multilayered approach to employee wellbeing instead.
Lynda Parkinson CMIOSH
Health and safety lead, HB Projects Ltd
Construction remains a high-risk industry for physical safety. Although we are trying to ‘clean up our act’ to become more attractive to younger generations, and technology is becoming more influential, construction site work remains hazardous and unpredictable. We have not lost sight of this in the drive to include mental health. People will always need frameworks for protection from physical harm, and will always be susceptible to being human. Wellbeing should not be assigned a greater or lesser status than physical safety. Both contribute to keeping workers safe and healthy, and maintaining this balance is essential.