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Mental health: The next major focus for health and safety professionals?

28 February 2017

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Mental health: The next major focus for health and safety professionals?

Health and safety champions have long campaigned for occupational hygiene, safe working environments and the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle. However, one topic we remain more reserved on is that of mental health.

Slowly and somewhat reluctantly, the world is waking up to the realities of mental health. Thanks to the unwavering work of charities and individuals, culturally, we are beginning to see a seismic shift in our attitudes concerning mental health. Heather Beach, writing for the SHP Online, muses on some of these issues and asks how we can implement more mentally friendly policies into our workspaces.

It is a move that could not come sooner. Before we consider the business cost, it is important to pause on the human cost too: one in four of us will suffer each year from a mental illness, it is three times more common than cancer and we could be affected as easily as we could catch a cold. Some 6,000 people commit suicide annually – and men are around 3 times more likely to commit suicide than women. The likes of anxiety and depression do not discriminate and what people need more than anything is empathy and understanding.

Last year alone, stress accounted for 43% of all working days lost due to ill health. Yet, despite this, 95% of employees cited a different reason for their absence because of the stigma. There are some 70 million sick days a year that are directly related to mental health and that is before we account for the illnesses behind the excuses.

More alarmingly, one study showed that 94% of business leaders admitted to harbouring prejudice against people with mental health issues in their organisation, while 49% of employees felt they would not or could not talk to their manager about their mental health. It is sad that in 2017, in spite of the predominance of mental illness, it is still more socially acceptable to lie about having the flu than it is to admit that you are having a bad mental health day.

It follows then that investing in mental support can boost productivity, profits and output – after all, happy employees will work harder. But what can companies do to help their staff? There are a lot of theories floating around– be it remote working, confidential support or simply opening a dialogue where staff feel secure enough to openly admit that they are struggling.

Heather writes that it must be approached like safety and it should be “embraced at a leadership level to create a truly healthy, thriving culture.” She also suggests introducing the likes of employee surveys, psychometric testing, 365 appraisals or even brightening up the office with plants and natural light. For managers who are unsure, there are courses not dissimilar to first aid training that you can take that equip you with the skills you need to adequately listen, help and understand the issues in front of you. MHFA England is just one example of organisations offering this service.

She concludes: “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.”

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