Mental Health: The next major focus for health and safety professionals?
By Heather Beach
In October last year, I attended a course called “Mental Health First Aid Lite”. Run by Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England, it aims to provide an introduction to mental health for workplaces, to develop awareness of the issue and gives you as an individual the first tools to start to deal with it.
In my mid-twenties a member of my team went home to discover his father had taken his own life. I was obviously horrified and sent him off on compassionate leave. On returning to work, his attendance was erratic, his work substandard and I did not have the training or awareness to understand that he was struggling with his mental health. Here in my forties (having passed through a little sturm und drang myself of course!), the signs of someone dealing with depression or anxiety are much clearer and I have developed much greater tools for understanding and assisting.
We’ve all heard the phrase “For far too long the profession has whispered health and shouted safety”. Campaigning inside the profession for health to move up the agenda has seen a great focus on the occupational hygiene aspects of health – the long latency diseases caused by silica, asbestos and the like – those which still kill more than 13,000 people a year.
So where does mental health sit? With HR who will certainly deal with the fallout when things go wrong? With senior management generally? With health and safety? The answer is all of the above of course, but there is a real opportunity for health and safety to show leadership here, in an area which is not compliance focused but definitely has a business benefit argument and of course ticks the ethics boxes.
The world today
These days, mental health is becoming far less of a taboo topic. Someone in our friendship group or family will have suffered a major mental health issue and one in four of us will suffer with some issue related to our mental health each year (with the most common being anxiety and depression). Mental health issues are three times more common than cancer. Last year, stress accounted for 43% of all working days lost due to ill health and for 34% of all work-related ill health cases, yet 95% of employees cited a reason other than workplace stress for their absence due to stigma .
More than 6,000 people complete suicide every year – three times the number of men to women.
The scale of the problem in the UK is particularly heightened when it comes to self-harm – with the UK topping the European charts with one in ten people self-harming through for example cutting themselves or taking tablets .
Not only is the topic more acknowledged, but it is my belief that the world these days is organised in a way which exacerbates the problem – with volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity leading us all on certain days to score too high on the Goldberg Anxiety Scale. It stands to reason that we need to develop greater personal resilience, and develop our nose for understanding that someone may be suffering with their mental health and our abilities to be able to deal with it.
For a long time, health and safety (or should I say safety) was tackled as a compliance issue and still is in many places. More recently the business benefits of belonging to an organisation which takes safety seriously have been recognised as well as the terrible brand damage (to the point of organisational destruction) which can occur from having ignored it.
Norman Lamb MP has tabled a motion that the First Aid Regulations be amended to take in mental health – a proposal which could indeed be a game changer, but meantime, let’s focus on the clear business benefits of creating an organisation which has employees who thrive rather than just survive.
There are 70 million sick days a year directly attributable to mental health issues – that is without the anxiety and depression masquerading as a bad back or a cold. The HSE in 2015 reported that “stress” accounted for 35% of all ill health cases that year. Additionally, there is the problem of presenteeism – coming to work when you are not really well because the culture demands it. The Centre for Mental Health in 2010 estimated that this accounts for 1.5 times more lost productivity than absences.
It isn’t hard to see how an organisation in which individuals thrive, feel appreciated and are able to talk to their manager about stress is one which is going to be far more attractive to be employed by and to stay in, than the opposite. That at the same time business costs related to sickness and absence will reduce and productivity will improve.
Conversely 94% of business leaders admitted to prejudice against people with mental health issues in their organisation  and 49% of employees would not talk to their manager about a mental health issue .
How do we address it?
It seems to me that lots of experiments and initiatives are starting to take place – many of them led by health and safety. We should be at a stage where we can develop programmes which a) outline the problem at an organisational level b) create a plan to address it c) embed the learning and processes. Treat health like safety? Just like safety, it needs to be embraced at a leadership level to create a truly healthy, thriving culture. First and foremost, leaders need to look to themselves, as always, and examine and understand their own attitudes and where those come from.
Wellbeing professionals will look at lots of ways of measuring but, a look at sickness absence data should only be a starting point (given that depression often masquerades as a cold) and should be taken together with such things as employee surveys, benchmarking of quality of working life, sometimes even psychometric testing or 365 appraisals. This could be followed by a review of what resources are currently available to staff (employee assistance, occupational health, face to face support).
Mental Health First Aid
Mental Health First Aid courses can be an excellent way to start to raise awareness and develop champions within the business.
MHFA England encourage training as many members of the management team as possible in at least an awareness of the issue. They now have over 1,000 individuals trained to deliver this course (which costs from £69 to £200 dependent on whether you want a half day, full day or two day course) and over 150,000 people have now been trained.
It was the half day course which I attended and it is essentially a flavour of the full two days, highlighting the size of the issue and giving some food for thought on how you might deal with it. As well as some new facts and figures which I had not known. Particularly interesting for me was how to ask someone if they had considered taking their own life as well as a practical exercise involved in uncovering all the prejudices we have towards mental illness.
It is incredibly heartening to see how the construction industry is particularly embracing this training. It has been reported that those working in construction are six times more likely to die from suicide than from falling from height. It is very positive to see the Mates in Mind programme being promoted by the Construction Health Leaders group (very much led by our health and safety leaders in this country). This was driven initially by Martin Coyd, who is also an MHFA instructor.
I am delighted with the progress MHFA training is making, and would encourage any business to send as many people as possible on a course. It is, I believe a great first step. It is only a first step though.
Our attitude to our working life is impacted by so many factors. How at ease with him/her self is our manager? If they are not secure in their own skin, you will get the brunt of it. Indeed research shows that the largest risk factor in your wellbeing at work (almost as important as your relationship with your spouse) is rapport with your boss (Gilbreath, Work and Stress). Creating an environment in which everyone thrives requires self-knowledge and commitment from everyone involved. A coaching culture, in which we all manage our own egos. I would always advocate soft skills training, or facilitated team working in order that we all keep learning.
We live in interesting times, in which families and jobs are no longer necessarily for life. We all have to work much harder at being the best versions of ourselves on order to retain those things we want and attain more. Creating an environment in which learning is just part of the culture – whether it be Tai Chi in the mornings (as advocated by Karl Simons at Thames Water) or training managers to be coaches or Mental Health First Aiders, health and safety professionals cannot work alone in this. Whilst they may drive the charge forward, they need to also be collaborative – ensuring that HR, Facilities and senior managers are also part of the solution.
For more information on Mental Health First Aid training in your area contact [email protected].
- Statistics – Business in the Community 2016
- Royal College of Psychology
- Bupa 2014
- Business in the Community 2016.
Get Your Free Ticket to Jonny Wilkinson's Talk at Safety & Health Expo 2019
Arguably one of the best-known rugby players in the world, Jonny Wilkinson CBE famously kicked the drop goal that won England the 2003 World Cup with just seconds left in the final. Much of Jonny’s success on the field, however, took its psychological toll. Jonny has dealt with depression, anxiety and panic attacks. In his honest, unguarded speech, entitled ‘Success on the field and mental health: a personal account of understanding what matters’, Jonny will recount how his focus and dedication to the sport he loves meant overlooking important parts of his life.