How Health and Safety Innovations Can Reduce Mental Health Illnesses

Neil HartleyHealth & Safety Issues/TrendsLeave a Comment

work related stress

At best, poor mental health is costing the UK economy the equivalent of 4% of GDP, or close to the annual spend on education. At worst, it’s killing us.

As reported in the HSE provisional statistics for 2016/17, ‘work-related stress, depression or anxiety cases (new or longstanding)’ has now become the UK’s biggest work-related illness, overtaking musculoskeletal disorder cases.

The 2017 report Thriving at Work by Stevenson/Farmer (commissioned by the Government) is an excellent review of the current state of mental health in the workplace and provides numerous tools and recommendations for managing and treating poor mental health but offers little help to deal with the root causes. [Probably out of scope of the commission].

Separating cause and effect is a first step to dealing with this problem holistically. Even the HSE seem to conflate cause and effect when referring to “work-related stress, depression or anxiety” because, to a layman, stress appears to be a root cause and depression and anxiety an effect.

Clearly the roots of mental illness is a psychological discipline all to itself where current thinking is that “mental illnesses are likely to have multiple causes, including genetic, biological and environmental factors”. ‘Environment’ here captures a broad range of situations including upbringing and some of the classic epigenetic experiments show that poor upbringing impacts our (well, a rat’s) ability to deal with stress.

The point is that, broadly speaking, stress in the workplace can cause the mental health illnesses that are having such a massive impact on the individual, the economy and society in general. Further, greater focus is on managing and treating mental health illnesses than addressing the root causes. Helping cope with stress is a positive thing, but not unnecessarily adding to that stress would be even better.

We have discussed work-related stress previously, particularly from the standpoint of the health and safety professional. Trying to ensure people work safely and are safe at work is a tightrope walk at best but can be a huge source of stress when any one of the support of the Board, the participation of employees, or continually improving safety processes are lacking.

In an environment where mistakes can kill, the health and safety professional is often faced by the dichotomy that improved performance leads to even less support, and more stress. This was highlighted recently by Geoffrey Podger, former Chief Executive of HSE, at the Safety and Health Expo who said, “As long as things are going well or are appear to be going well, people tend to lose interest in H&S. Often people in the profession will ask, ‘Why are we spending all this money on H&S when we never have any accidents’?” [This was a general comment to the image problem of health and safety.]

So, paper-based processes continue, investment becomes even harder to obtain, and the safety of workers remains in the hands of lady luck and the knowledge and diligence of the few. And stress levels rise a notch.

What about other employees/workers? Do you perform stress risk assessments? It’s a legal requirement that you do and that, if you have more than 5 employees, you document them. Are they current and relevant? Do they truly reflect your business environment today? The HSE have produced some example stress risk assessments that you can use as a template.

Let’s go back to the dichotomy of improved performance leading to tighter budgets and the propagation of stress. How is improved performance being measured? Probably from a safety perspective if the prevailing attitude is ‘Why are we spending all this money on H&S when we never have any accidents’? However, with an annual cost to the UK economy approaching £100Bn, surely now is the time to lead the budget dialogue with the cost of mental health illness to your business.

What are the causes of stress that you can eliminate within your health and safety remit? For example, are you still running paper-based systems such as permit-to-work that cause you stress (is everyone safe?) and stress your workers because those paper-based systems are inefficient at best and dangerous at worst?

The inefficiencies of paper-based systems result in even less time for workers to complete jobs, thereby, increasing the propensity to cut corners on the job itself. With ever greater demands on time, stress levels rise and, as we know, stress can have either direct or indirect effects that result in one or more mental health illnesses.

The ROI conversation for innovations in safety becomes more meaningful at Board level and, in dealing with the root cause of mental health illness (for this discussion, stress), you will be able to tackle mental health illness head-on while delivering the investment required that will improve safety performance still further (after all we’re not even close to reducing fatalities to zero).

A great example of where e-permits has delivered a reduction in stress was delivered in this quote from Paul Hood of Barclays:

“I use e-permits as they allow me to sleep at night. It gives me piece of mind knowing that all regulations are in order and that the workers are fully competent and safe.”Paul Hood, Head of Engineering, Barclays

If your business is still operating paper-based permit-to-work then following in the footsteps of Barclays is a good start to mitigating your stress, worker’s stress (improved efficiencies and less time wasted chasing paper) while ensuring your workers get to go home safely at the end of a shift (reduced stress all round). Fill out the demo form on the left or use the Contact form to see how we can help you.

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