In the next part of his SHP blog series, Tim Marsh looks at why safety practitioners should play an active role in a holistic and integrated approach to mental health.
There has been a lot of controversy about the link between mental health and accidents recently with several prominent practitioners feeling that safety professionals should leave all such issues to health services as the majority of ‘problems’ are either physiological or caused by relationships outside of work. More than that – that suggesting that mental health and safety are linked might lead to active discrimination and make people wary of being open. However, it’s a simple fact that many people spend rather more of their waking hours at work with colleagues rather than at home with family and friends.
This ‘let’s debate this’ blog makes the case that, actually, there are several very good reasons why safety practitioners should play an active role in a holistic and integrated approach to mental health. (I’ve given this piece a provocative title in a blatant attempt to generate interest and discussion).
Is there even a causal link between ‘struggling’ and incidents?
As well as basic confidentiality issues it is impossible to know whether any incidents are caused by / made more likely by the illness itself, the medication taken to control the illness or by lifestyle issues such as self-medication. That’s a set of interrelated relationships notoriously difficult to untangle. For example, it’s not as simple as saying depressed people are more likely to be fatalistic and anxious people more likely to be distracted because anxious people can by hyper vigilant. (Though often about relatively trivial issues to which they give too much importance – distracting them from real risks).
In a previous article I introduced the concept of ‘blue pies’ to illustrate that people have good days and bad days with errors of all sorts more likely on a bad day. (That’s even more likely – Reason’s golden rule of human error No 1 is that even the best people make mistakes on good days!) The point is that ‘struggling’ contributes to a bad day just as fatigue, lack of time and resource and disempowerment does. Overall, three behavioural issues do seem to directly link mental health and A&E (see HSE RR 488).
- A lack of focus and situational awareness – IE more likely to be oblivious to risk.
- An increased fatalism and disengagement – IE less likely to care about risk. And …
- An increased impetuosity and lack of control – IE more likely to actively create risk.
We work with an insurance company that likes a memorable three letter acronym and they use WWF as in what? whatever… and f*** it.
Though conclusive data is hard to come by the data from an Australian study of 60,000 workers sounds credible. It suggests that incidents increase by between 50 and 150 % depending on the situation and the severity of the issues being faced and that individuals are only 70% as likely to contribute ‘successful’ behaviours to the organisation. (Successful behaviours being broadly any discretionary behaviours that contribute to positive ‘culture creation’ like looking out for new starts or volunteering).
I’d like to round that up and suggest a (very) rough rule of thumb that ‘struggling’ workers are twice as likely to have an accident and half as likely to contribute ‘discretionary’ effort in a positive way. (Again, it’s complicated. Some people can get hyper and frantic and contribute all sorts of discretionary effort – but often complete with unintended consequences. On the other hand, many have learnt that helping others is a really good way to make yourself feel more positive …). I need to be crystal clear here – I’m not suggesting this to blame them in any way but to encourage organisations to address the issue and do something about it proactively.
How can the safety world help?
The first opportunity is the safety world’s experience and expertise. Any good safety professional knows that ‘culture is king’ and that excellence is based on an objective, analytical, empowering and dialogue rich ‘just’ culture with leadership and emotional intelligence to the fore. Applying a range of practical methodologies based on these principles has enabled the UK, for example, to post world class safety figures (whilst remaining, it must be noted, very average in terms of mental health and wellbeing). In short, there are transferable and proven methodologies that aren’t yet widely applied to mental health and wellbeing – but bloody well should be!
For example, mental health first aiders can be a key element of a holistic approach but are largely working reactively and are no more a magic bullet than even the best inspirational speaker is to long term safety improvement. They must be part of a holistic approach – and if a genuine culture of care is driven through line management not necessarily needed at all.
To paraphrase the classic ‘safety differently’ question a company that frequently asks it workers ‘we want you to flourish here… what do you need?’ won’t be going far wrong. (Well, if it listens to the answers and then acts on them when viable… but that’s a different matter).
Virtuous and vicious circles
We can all agree that finding yourself angry, indignant, bored, under resourced and disengaged at work is not ideal in any way and won’t send you home happy and smiling. Bad work is bad for you. The flip side is that ‘good work is good for you’ and people who enjoy and or get meaning from their work can often be psychologically healthier than those that don’t need to work at all. Soldiers and cricketers, for example, have relatively normal suicide figures – but that’s not true of ex-soldiers and ex-cricketers. To rework Reason’s Cheese model – when you put your bat, spikes and whites away it removes a blank cheese slice.
We can’t all enjoy the camaraderie of military units and team sport, but we can work in organisations where task-based issues such as the amount of autonomy and control and skill use and development is tweaked to best suit the individual. Likewise, some people like a lot of interpersonal contact and others a little – but we all want it to be good quality and there’s not many organisations that haven’t an opportunity to enhance the emotional intelligence skill set of its managers and supervisors.
In short, especially as we emerge from COVID-19, with every fatigue and mental health metric heading steeply in the wrong direction, it’s in the best interest of all organisations to pro-actively address these issues. Work may be only one element in the equation – and sometimes only a small element – but on many occasions we can help break the chain of vicious circles and set up virtuous ones.
We’re saying here that pro-actively seeking to enhance mental health at work is an important element of the overall safety and organizational resilience challenge. What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments below…
Click here for more from Tim’s blog series…
The Safety Conversation Podcast: Listen now!
The Safety Conversation with SHP (previously the Safety and Health Podcast) aims to bring you the latest news, insights and legislation updates in the form of interviews, discussions and panel debates from leading figures within the profession.
Find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Google Podcasts, subscribe and join the conversation today!