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March 7, 2023

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Leading in health and safety to ensure workplace mental well-being

Leadership is, and will remain, a key component in respect of occupational safety and health (OSH). This is relevant as leaders are intrinsic to organisations, and illustrated further in that all workplaces have leaders, regardless of where they are in the organisational hierarchy. They can be supervisors, managers, team leaders or senior leaders. Leaders can be effective at leading and supporting those they lead, or they could be not as effective, and may find it challenging to support those within their teams, departments, or at an organisational level. Regardless of how they lead, all leaders have the potential to be strong, supportive, open and vibrant in their leadership abilities. These attributes are less about their personality, or how they work, but rather on what they accomplish with the resources that are available to them; and of course, how best they can use these resources.

It is useful to accept that organisations do not have infinite resources, some may have more than others, but most of the time the solutions for the challenges within an organisation do not require extensive funds or numerous interventions.

So why is leadership so important with respect to mental well-being? This is best reflected by focusing on what we know. Over time, occupational safety has seen a downward trend in work-related fatalities, due to the continued investment of interventions and practices to ensure that workplaces are safer and that workers are encouraged and supported in working more safely. Occupational health, the other side of the OSH duo, has not had as strong a focus, and, therefore remains of concern due to the constancy of the occurrence of annual cases of mental ill-health. These conditions continue to realise significant costs to the economy, as within the workplace, individuals are more likely to succumb to those mental ill health conditions, i.e., work-related stress, depression or anxiety, because of the work environment. Those work stressors or work hazards, such as too many demands, low control, poor support, job insecurity, low or no promotion opportunities, under- or over-promotion, having to do work of low social value or illegitimate tasks, have reliably been found to impact adversely on mental health. Such outcomes are evitable, as leaders’ actions have been shown to improve workers’ mental ill health. Leaders are the ones who facilitate decent work; decent work in turn impacts positively on mental health.

Leaders in their primary or secondary role of leading on behalf of organisations, are the ones who mainly create and drive change. This will include creating and sustaining a psychologically healthy culture. Such a culture change will establish, and set the scene on how their organisations view and respond to mental health, and more importantly, the work stressors that can cause work-related mental ill health. It is useful if all leaders, and regardless of their position in the organisation, receive mental health training. Such training positively impacts on employee well-being and mental health. This is as it provides the leader with the resources, i.e., the knowledge, skills, and confidence to spot and offer assistance to those workers who are experiencing challenges with their mental health. Other outcomes from engaging in managerial training, such as training that includes a specific emphasis on sleep promotion, is a reduction in turnover as well as an increase in job satisfaction. Moreover, in facilitating mental health training organisations benefit by gaining a positive return on the investment (ROI), an increase in the learners’ mental health literacy, and by workers increasing their use of available resources.

So what are some of the other ways that leaders can ensure effective practices that contribute to good OSH? Leaders should be visible, and make their visibility count. For example, leaders may choose to increase their interaction with those they lead by walking around the workplace, assisting and intervening as needed. Very importantly, it is useful to be aware that these walks have to be mindful. For example, do leaders seem approachable; how do they sound; how do they look; are they willing to listen without judgement and without interjecting unnecessarily? While these walks allow leaders to speak with workers and understand their challenges, it is essential to accept that although leaders are visible and are seen, they have to see those they lead as well, and acknowledge them. The Management by Wandering Around approach improves performance when senior leaders are seen to sort out those challenges that workers have raised; it is less successful if it does not seek to engage actively in problem solving.

Leaders, specifically those at the most senior levels, can encourage worker participation, and thereby enhance well-being. When workers participate, and become engaged with what is happening, this has a dual benefit for them and for the organisation. Research shows that actively seeking upward feedback from workers, which is used then to inform decisions, helps to create a more positive and inclusive culture. As well, workers who can use their voice are more likely to stay with the organisation. Further, leaders who encourage and support more diverse voices enable an increase in their organisations’ overall health. Other benefits of fostering diversity is that a diverse workforce strengthens an organisation’s performance levels and its ability to thrive. Interestingly, a poor work environment is less likely to encourage worker participation.

As highlighted, there are various practices and interventions that leaders can use and introduce, which are relatively inexpensive, but can deliver good outcomes within organisations. Worker participation is one such intervention; it supports a more inclusive and equitable work environment, which in turn facilitates a more psychologically healthy workplace, and thereby enhancing workers’ mental health and well-being.

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