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Safety and Health Practitioner (SHP) is first for independent health and safety news.
October 7, 2014

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Mental health: We treat the problems, not the causes

When we talk of mental health, we tend to focus on the treatment of mental illness when it occurs in staff, rather than preventing it. We spend time looking at how our workplaces might create illness. We risk assess and systematise management. We enact programmes that provide treatment for the ill effects wrought by the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous nature of our organisations and the way they operate.

While this is all worthwhile work, I think professor dame Sally Davies, the UK’s chief medical officer, had it right when she said: “Strategies in the workplace to prevent mental ill health have not proved cost-effective, and focusing on harmful ‘stresses’ in the workplace risks modifying expectations in a way that perversely leads to an increase in illness reporting.”

She went on to state that it is: “better to promote ways in which well-designed work can lead to psychological benefits.”

I couldn’t agree more. I specialise in helping organisations design “mentally healthy workplaces”. While this sounds like it could be a time and cost-consuming exercise in practice, the reality is refreshingly different. There are three basic steps:

Promote wellbeing for all staff

At an organisational level, this is about a positive, transparent culture that values staff. It might mean being clearer in your internal communications, or perhaps involving staff in decisions that affect them. It could mean promoting flexible working or raising awareness of wellbeing by running courses such as mental health first aid.

Tackle the causes of work-related mental health problems

Chances are you are already doing something about this. You will have policies around hours that can be worked or how tasks are allocated. You may well be offering training for staff and hopefully you are supporting your managers, particularly in times of increased demand/workload. Regular one-to-ones or mentoring, access to occupational health services or employee assistance all come under this heading.

Support staff who are experiencing mental health problems

This seems obvious, except we don’t always know who those people are – particularly if we haven’t promoted wellbeing and made it clear to staff that they are valued. If that’s the case, they may be reluctant to come forward, especially if their problem isn’t work related. You see, not all mental health challenges are sparked by the workplace. In many cases, work can be a kind of sanctuary from home problems. A supportive manager who is willing to make adjustments to patterns of work could be the difference between an employee taking a long period of sickness absence or continuing in position. The research suggests that staff who are trusted and approached with integrity repay that investment many times over.

The research also suggests that organisations struggle to begin these discussions so on this World Mental Health Day I urge you to start a dialogue about mental health. It might be with your boss, your subordinate, a peer, a colleague in a different department, but please do start this conversation.

What makes us susceptible to burnout?

In this episode  of the Safety & Health Podcast, ‘Burnout, stress and being human’, Heather Beach is joined by Stacy Thomson to discuss burnout, perfectionism and how to deal with burnout as an individual, as management and as an organisation.

We provide an insight on how to tackle burnout and why mental health is such a taboo subject, particularly in the workplace.


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