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Adam Bannister is a freelancer journalist who has held various editorial positions, including as editor of SHP's partner publication for security & fire safety, IFSEC Insider (formally IFSEC Global).
April 27, 2023

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‘We must predict to be preventative’: Mental health support dos and don’ts from SHE keynote speaker Duncan Spencer

Duncan Spencer, IOSH’s Head of Advice and Practice, previews his forthcoming presentation at Safety & Health Expo from 16-18 May…

Recovery controls such as mental health first aid and employee assistance programmes cannot effectively manage psychosocial risk alone, according to IOSH’s Duncan Spencer.

Duncan Spencer

Duncan, Head of Advice and Practice at IOSH (Institution of Occupational Safety and Health), was fielding questions from SHP about his upcoming Safety and Health Expo keynote.

That presentation, entitled ‘Mental health support: the dos and don’ts’, will see Spencer answer questions from journalist Louis Wustemann on how delegates can avoid over-promising and under-delivering when it comes to running mental health programmes.

SHP: Can you briefly summarise your role at IOSH?

Duncan Spencer (DS): My team is responsible for running IOSH’s research programme and for creating OSH technical content to support our policies, partnerships and media needs, but above all to create material that supports the growth of membership understanding and career development.

In short, we capture and generate thought leadership ideas for the benefit of IOSH activity and its members.

SHP: Is mental health a more slippery duty of care to understand and fulfil than other areas of health and safety given the complexity of human psychology?

DS: I don’t agree with the premise that it is a slippery duty of care; I would certainly agree it is more complex and demands different skills and knowledge from the OSH professional. The fact that it is a duty of care is all that matters.

At its core, managing psychosocial risk is very similar to any other safety or occupational health risk. It requires risk assessment, and the identification and effective implementation of controls, reporting processes and metrics, mitigative actions, incident investigation and so on.

The challenges are different compared to risks resulting in physical harm. These include: the influence of personal circumstances for which employers have little or no control, one man’s pressure is another’s motivation, dealing with medical-in-confidence aspects of individual cases, stigmatisation and cultural influences.

Organisations make mistakes when they don’t treat the management of psychosocial risk with similar procedure and rigour that is applied to risk that results in physical harm.

Putting in place mental health first aiders or peer-to-peer supporters or contracting employee assistance programmes is not good enough in isolation. These are recovery controls.

UK law requires that we predict to be preventative. So, failing to invest resources in identifying the stressors, recognising how they flex with business cycles, and ensuring the right monitoring, reporting and control processes are in place will mean that the organisation will, in reality, continue to wait until someone is complaining of mental harm before they act. That is unacceptable.

SHP: How might mental health initiatives typically over-promise and under-deliver?

wellbeingDS: If organisations are not careful, training mental health first aiders or peer-to-peer support can over-promise and under-deliver. If used well as part of a holistic system, they can be a very important part of an organisation’s response, but there are challenges.

This was seen in an IOSH-funded University of Nottingham study into the impact of mental health first aiders (peer-to-peer supporters) in the workplace.

Challenges include:

  • Role definition. What is their purpose and the boundaries to their role?
  • Who is an appropriate person, are they accessible and can their full-time role be interrupted?
  • Loyalty to the sufferer and loyalty to the business.
  • How does this role fit into the holistic, psychosocial risk management system? Mental health first aiders themselves do not usually have the power to effect necessary change in the organisation. The stressors remain and adverse reaction to them continues to be reasonably foreseeable.
  • Differentiation and timing. Mental health flexes like an elastic band through four stages: healthy, coping, struggling and being unwell. Peer-to-peer support is often targeted when people feel unwell, the elastic band is already overextended and misshaped. Management system design must help recognise these stages and facilitate intervention at the coping and struggling phases.
  • Peer-to-peer supporters may be used infrequently – how do you keep their knowledge refreshed and current?

SHP: What do you hope attendees will gain from listening to your talk?

Crowds watching the keynote theatre at Safety & Health Expo 2016

DS: The pressure to manage wellbeing at work is building and is one of the leading topics for business in this decade. Let me paint the bigger picture to provide a better context for why organisations must act.

In 2015, 193 member countries, including the UK, adopted the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This includes the commitment to deliver good health and wellbeing and providing decent work.

The implications of the UN SDGs are now reaching boardrooms. They must demonstrate they are delivering ethical practice and providing good work for people that is fulfilling and safe to health (see Catch the Wave, IOSH).

The pressure to do so is coming from a need to build business reputation, attract investment, and recruit and retain talented employees from an increasingly aware recruitment pool.

In 2022, the International Labour Organisation, of which the UK is also member, adopted a safe and healthy work environment as a fundamental principle and right at work. Mental wellbeing is included in both initiatives.

So, organisations must act to prevent mental ill health at work. Even if it isn’t caused by work, it is in their interests to assist employees so they retain talent, build loyalty and maintain productivity. The potential business benefits of having an effective holistic management system for ensuring mental wellbeing are considerable.

SHP: Many see the UK as a leader in workplace safety generally, but how would you evaluate progress in recent years on mental health issues, a more recent focus?

DS: We must be careful with an assumption that the UK leads on workplace safety. It is true to say we provide leadership but we must bear in mind that good things are happening all over the world in developed and developing economies.

In answer to the question, in general terms, in the first decade of this century there was a great deal of discussion about stress, about the effects of undue pressure and what should be included in a stress risk assessment.

In the second decade we realised that having some risk assessments was not significantly improving the situation or reducing the numbers of people reporting that they are stressed.

More recently we have had the Covid pandemic, which has brough occupational health risk much more to the forefront of our minds. Our focus in this decade should be building and implementing management systems to prevent psychological harm, systems that have the same rigour as those we have implemented to prevent physical harm. That’s our collective challenge.

SHP: Is there anything else you want to mention as a sneak preview of your talk?

DS: In 2023 Champion Health published a report called Workplace Health Report. [Notable] findings:

  • 9% of employees are currently experiencing thoughts of suicide or self-harm
  • Female employees are almost twice as likely to seek mental health support than men
  • Employees experiencing financial stress are twice as likely to experience thoughts of suicide or self-harm

Duncan Spencer will be speaking at in the Operational Excellence Theatre at Safety & Health Expo on Wednesday 17th May from 10.30 – 11.15. Register to attend here. 

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1 year ago

I love the term, psychosocial risk. This article is SO timely. Holistic Safety Culture in the workplace is where it’s at right now.