In the latest of our series exploring core OSH topics and your role in ensuring their risks are well managed, we focus on understanding mental health and wellbeing.
1. Define it
A person’s mental health is ‘the state of their psychological, emotional, cognitive and social wellbeing. It can affect decisions, reactions, attitudes, behavioural and social characteristics and general moods.’ Mental health can describe both positive and negative mental states. These can be of a short or long duration. States can change suddenly or progressively over a lifetime and can be unpredictable. Mental health can be affected by:
- Past or present traumatic events
- Physical and mental abuse
- Environmental factors
- Fears or threats
- Other illnesses (including painand chronic pain)
- Biological factors (for example,genes or hormones)
- No obvious recognisable cause.
By learning more about mental health and potential causes of mental ill health, organisations can become better equipped to implement effective management methods to prevent or limit the impact of work on mental health.
IOSH defines wellbeing as ‘an individual’s holistic state that encompasses both current mental and physical health circumstances based on influential factors’.
This means that an individual’s state of wellbeing is influenced by psychological and physiological conditions and experiences – both from the workplace and personal lives.
Wellbeing is important for organisations that want to improve their reputation, resilience, productivity and finances.
2. Influences: mental ill health
IOSH defines mental ill health as: ‘When one’s mental health has reached a point where they cannot cope with stress, thoughts, emotions, or previously diagnosed disorders, and symptoms cannot be managed without the need for some sort of intervention.’
Mental ill health can be caused by:
1. Traumatic events
These are usually associated with loss, abuse, threats, isolation, injury and disaster.
2. Occupation-related factors (work-related stress) such as:
- Undue pressures (job demand) or limited pressures in some cases
- Poorly defined job roles
- Lack of control over work
- Unhealthy work/life balance
- Poor working relationships
- Organisational change
- Lack of variety in work
- Limited career development.
3. Personal factors and lifestyle choices, including:
- Financial hardship or debt
- Poverty or housing and transport issues
- Relationship issues (including caring responsibilities)
- Medical complications or illnesses.
4. Biological agents and hazardous substances
- Contracted pathogens and infections – microbes such as viruses or bacteria – can influence the brain’s structure and function and can cause mental ill health or exacerbate symptoms.
- Ionising radiation – genetic mutations or cell destruction caused by radiation exposure can affect the brain and lead to mental ill health.
Genes can affect an individual’s emotional state, making them more susceptible to stress.
3. Influences: wellbeing
An individual’s wellbeing can be influenced by factors inside and outside the workplace. What may influence one person may not affect another. Unhealthy and unsafe workplaces, along with personal circumstances, can lead to negative wellbeing and other damaging consequences.
4. Identify mental health disorders
OSH professionals should be aware of:
- Anxiety – when it becomes uncontrollable, unexpected and unhelpful it can seriously affect someone’s life, work and health
- Depression – a ‘lowering of feelings’ that affects emotional states, thoughts, self-esteem, happiness and self-worth
- Post-traumatic stress disorder being unable to eliminate thoughts and emotions associated with injury, loss, danger, anger or grief
- Vicarious trauma/secondary traumatic stress – can occur from indirect exposure to emotional trauma that someone else has experienced, including graphic media, disturbing news reports or traumatic stories
- Suicidal thoughts and actions – a potential consequence of any mental ill health.
Improving workers’ mental health and wellbeing can have significant advantages for an organisation, including financial gains, reduced absenteeism and presenteeism, increased job satisfaction, happier workers and a more positive organisational culture. Use an occupational safety and health management system for the following:
1. Policies and action plans
General OSH policies will need to be reviewed and updated to include a commitment to mental health and wellbeing. For example:
- Introducing a calendar of activities and events to raise awareness
- Including wellbeing information in induction and training
- Introducing timely, risk-based plans for worker wellbeing assessments
- Providing support where required
- Reintegrating workers after absences
- Recording, reviewing and reporting on wellbeing-related absence.
This is required to help plan and implement mental health and wellbeing objectives. A dedicated team led by a senior manager and including all key stakeholders should be responsible for implementing strategy. Start by carrying out an analysis of:
- What your organisation does now
- What it may need to do
- What the predicted wellbeing gaps and priorities may be
- Which wellbeing process will be the best approach for the organisation.
3. Risk analysis and management
Use risk assessments to identify mental health and wellbeing hazards in the same way as for physical hazards. This can be complex because psychological, physiological and environmental factors can all contribute. Consider introducing wellbeing assessment tools and a wellbeing consultant to help with this. Identify controls to mitigate the risks of mental ill health in the workplace: for example, charity support.
4. Monitoring and measuring
Assessment data, trends and other data (such as illness absence) should be measured and recorded to help an organisation understand what measures are having a positive impact.
Internal and external reporting helps to demonstrate a commitment to continuous improvement, honesty, transparency and good governance. It is also an opportunity to celebrate and promote OSH success. Reports should include annual data on mental health and wellbeing, performance against targets and priorities.
For more on training, go to bit.ly/iosh-health-and-wellbeing