The challenge of not only supporting mental fitness in the workplace, but of demonstrating that this is taking place, may have felt immense to employers pre-pandemic but is now surely ever-more pressing?
The idea that we need the equivalent of personal protective equipment (PPE) for mental as well as physical health and safety was inspired between 2017 and 2019 while Libby Morley, owner of Mindshift Consultancy, was delivering mental health (MH) training within the construction and manufacturing sectors. Since then, access by workers to adequate PPE has become critical, but for other reasons.
She believes it’s wrong that it’s taken a pandemic to shine a spotlight on mental fitness, and argues that PPE for mental health is increasingly the conversation we need to be having.
'PPE is about prevention of illness or injury and preventing litigation. It's purpose is to reduce risk and keep people safe and, in line with the Health and Safety at Work Act, provision of PPE is a legal requirement. It is primarily about minimising risk of physical harm, with a focus on being proactive,' says Libby. 'After all, there is no point in putting that hard hat on once you’ve been hit on the head or providing gloves after someone has dermatitis or that high-vis jacket once you’re lying on the ground and have been knocked over!'
How can you translate these sorts of control measures (as defined within any risk assessment for health and safety) to MH? Libby suggests the following ways in which to start to generate debate and thought.
- The high-vis jacket is saying 'see me'. The response is 'we see you, you are safe'.
To be safe in a MH context requires a stigma-free culture that enables staff to be comfortable, confident and reassured if they need to say, 'see me' when experiencing mental distress. The aim is a non-judgemental workplace culture that acknowledges, understands and supports mental difference.
- Matching the right type of hand protection to the job being done is acknowledging that exposure to some products or heat sources can cause harm to the skin.
The MH equivalent here is acknowledging and assessing the potential for work-related stress by performing organisation-wide or individual stress risk assessments and implementing control measures to reduce it.
- The availability of hand wash or emergency rinsing agents is about ensuring that, if an accident occurs despite control measures such as gloves or eye protection being used, that swift action to prevent long-lasting damage can be taken.
The MH equivalent of this involves providing support if work-related stress or mental distress occurs. This could be via access to an employee assistance programme (EAP), funded talking therapy or availability of colleagues who have knowledge and confidence to talk about mental distress.
- Occupational exposure limits and working time directives are about too much of something for too long being a risk and allowing workers to stop before harm is done.
A working environment (cultural and practical) that supports the need to relax, reflect, and recharge is the MH alternative.
- Wearing a hard hat is acknowledging that we are not invincible, that we may be vulnerable if hit on the head. Provision of the hard hat is saying 'things can go wrong, so, just in case, look after yourself and wear this'.
The MH equivalent is an employee who implements self-help strategies and takes responsibility for his mental resilience as far as possible.
- Toolbox talks typically educate staff about PPE use and how to work safely.
Translating this into mental 'fitness' could include following national campaigns, holding regular health promotions on MH and displaying relevant resources in the workplace or on the intranet.
- Access to physical first aiders in the workplace is a legal requirement. The Health and Safety (First Aid) Regulations 1981 require employers to 'provide adequate and appropriate equipment, facilities and personnel to ensure their employees receive immediate attention if they are injured or taken ill at work'. In essence, trained staff aim to keep people safe and try to stop a problem getting worse until the professionals arrive, they don’t walk by and ignore the symptoms.
Staff trained in MH awareness follow the same idea, however their role does not require them to wait until a crisis occurs before stepping in.
Many people have had no training in stress or MH, don’t know what to say or worry they could make a situation worse. Training related to stress and MH increases knowledge, understanding and confidence and reduces stigma around this topic. Further this enables a good quality conversation that can reduce the isolation and distress felt and, if necessary, enable signposting to professionals.
Parity of esteem, parity of ‘PPE’
Parity of esteem is the principle by which MH is given equal priority to physical health and was enshrined in law by the Health and Social Care Act 2012.
Libby wants to make the concept of minimising work-related risk of stress and mental distress easy to understand and more relatable, especially within those sectors where physical health and safety and the usefulness of control measures and risk assessment is second nature.
In October 2021 the HSE announced it was extending the scope of its existing programme of spot checks to include work-related stress. This is welcome news. Businesses cannot continue to be reactive in their approach to managing work-related stress. Organisations with employees who feel unable to be honest about their MH, risk high rates of absenteeism or presenteeism.
One way to forefront MH is to make conversations and support around it more visible. Using the idea of providing 'PPE' for MH is a relatable way to kickstart and make this change.
Libby Morley is the owner of Mindshift Consultancy. During the pandemic, she created a course on Understanding Stress and Performing an Individual Stress Risk Assessment, approved and licensed by IOSH.
Mindshift also offers a range of courses and OH support to organisations around how to create PPE for mental health, and how to make this a positive sustainable change that also meets the legal requirement. For more details, visit https://www.mindshiftconsultancy.co.uk/ or email [email protected]