Occupational Health and Safety Concerns in Today's Workplace: Two Underestimated Factors

Much of the attention in occupational hygiene management today goes to traditional factors and concerns in today’s workplace, including on-the-job injury, role-specific safety training, return to work benchmarking, occupational health systems, and even more leading-edge trends such as the procurement and adoption of enterprise-wide occupational health and safety software or OH software.

While OH&S software and ergonomic software can help streamline operations and make practitioners and their programs more effective, two non-traditional factors must be considered for an effective OH&S program and successful occupational health and safety software initiative: employee mental health and fatigue.

 

Underestimated Factor #1 in Occupational Health and Safety: Mental Health

Psychological health and safety issues have a wide range of effects – from absenteeism and presenteeism, to workplace grievances and conflicts, to reduced productivity and effectiveness. Some estimates suggest that mental illnesses reduce GDP in the US, Canada and Europe through lost work time by as much as 4% – $570 billion from the US economy alone. Researchers have also determined that of the most costly health conditions (including both direct and indirect costs), depression was number one, and anxiety number five. Despite its significance, it remains a workplace issue that is largely avoided and overlooked by occupational health and safety professionals of every kind.

The crux of the issue, however, is not the massive scale of the problem, it the discomfort that many feel when discussing mental health in the workplace.

  • Employees don’t want to discuss it – there is a stigma attached to mental illness and there are concerns that they could lose their job if they speak up.
  • Supervisors don’t want to discuss it – they don’t want to be seen to be prying into an employee’s personal life, and are unsure about how to handle such a situation.
  • Even occupational health practitioners don’t want to discuss it – diagnosing and treating cholesterol, hypertension and heart disease is relatively easy, but depression and anxiety are often missed.

As a result of this informal pact to simply avoid the subject, most organizations have no systems in place to identify or support employees with mental health. When occupational health professionals rely on individuals to identify their own mental health issues, or rely on supervisors to identify potential issues, they are being stymied by this discomfort around openly discussing depression and anxiety. The way forward, then, is to have a systematic approach – one that doesn’t rely on one-to-one relationships, but instead creates a framework where the identification and support of mental health issues is a normal part of an organization’s occupational health program.

 

A systematic approach to employee mental health is required to improve occupational health and safety outcomes

Mental health at work is an issue that will not be solved by an individual’s efforts or health software alone, but instead will have to come from a coordinated effort across the whole of an organization to educate employees and increase awareness of the problem. Senior management must prioritize mental health efforts to improve employee mental health, but this will only be successful if it is embraced at every level of the organization. It must come from the top down – employee communications should discuss mental health initiatives, and senior management must reinforce the importance of identifying and treating mental health within the organization.

 

The availability of mental health resources should start early

As soon as an employee is hired, part of the onboarding process should be completion of a behavioral health module to highlight the importance of mental health in the organization. It should highlight the resources available to the employee if they do face mental health issues in their day to day life, and clearly define the steps that should be taken to ensure that they get the help and resources that they need.

 

Managers and Supervisors should receive appropriate training

When employees are promoted to supervisory positions, they should receive additional behavioral health training to (a) reinforce awareness of the resources that are available, ensuring that they have all the tools required to support any employees in their department with mental health issues and (b) educate supervisors on how to identify when employees may be affected by mental health issues.

 

Proactive employee monitoring and outreach is a necessity

An outreach program should be in place that automatically monitors factors such as absenteeism or productivity and flags employees that may have mental health issues. Market-leading occupational health manager software can help to manage this. The employee can then be contacted via employee questionnaire or survey to ensure that they are given the opportunity to discuss any underlying issues that are causing the reduction in attendance or productivity. Note: this outreach should be carried out by a mental health professional, rather than a direct supervisor, as to avoid any situation where the employee may be uncomfortable discussing personal issues.

These are simply the first steps towards having a system in place to identify mental health issues in the workplace. The important point to remember is that there must be a concrete system.

 

There Is No Quick Fix

Although we have seen that there is clearly a dire need for occupational health support of employee mental health, it is important to note that there are no quick fixes in mental health. Even if your organization becomes adept at identifying employee mental health issues, implements and adapts leading OHS software, and provides the required support and treatment, it can still be many months before an employee is able to return to their normal level of productivity and effectiveness. Treatment can also be expensive. However, when the long-term expense is measured against the current negative impacts of depression and anxiety, there is still no question that this type of systematic effort is absolutely necessary.

 

Underestimated Factor #2 in Occupational Health and Safety: Fatigue

Today’s workers are exhausted. Chances are you’re one of the 90% of employers negatively impacted by workplace fatigue – and that you are underestimating its impact. Tired workers are more prone to miss work and/or be involved in injuries or near-misses.

The NSC reports that 97% of companies say fatigue is impacting them adversely, including 32% who report injuries and near-misses due to fatigue. Here are some practical approaches for managers to combat workplace fatigue and its’ impact on occupational health and safety:

 

Start the conversation and remove the stigma

Start the conversation at work and leverage internal and external resources to educate your workforce on the importance of getting adequate quality and quantity of sleep, by implementing better sleep hygiene habits.  

Fatigue impacts those who often use electronic devices after work (altering a person’s internal clock and melatonin production), and those that experience jet lag from business travel. This means that all tiers of an organization must be involved in one way or another.

Your Occupational Hygiene professionals must champion these campaigns and fatigue should become a regular part of safety meetings at the beginning of every shift and change. Its impact should not be undermined.

Collaborate across your organization to advance programs that address fatigue, promote rest with sleep-rooms and rest-breaks, and offer sleep coaching programs to remove stigma.

 

Learn to recognize the signs

You can spot fatigue through obvious behaviors, including yawning and nodding and less obvious indicators such as moodiness, decreased awareness, low energy, poor judgement, and worker conflict. Listen for conversations about fatigue or increased stress levels and address tardy employees constructively to see how they can be supported. Also consider the work space and how it contributes to fatigue. Low light, warm conditions, and noise have been shown to contribute to fatigue.

 

Make fatigue easier to report and schedule for safety

As noted, late employees are often tired employees. Reduce the focus on disciplining late employees to encourage reporting. Focus on healthy schedules, facilitating short breaks and naps, referring them to programs for sleep disorder screening, offering sleep hygiene through employee assistance programs, and more. Strive to implement fixed shifts with infrequent rotation (a minimum of two weeks), aligning as much as possible with the body’s natural sleep cycles. Schedules should provide sufficient time to sleep.  A minimum 12-hour window between shifts is ideal.

 

Leverage technology

Occupational health and safety software (OH&S software) and ergonomics Software can help manage your fatigue programs as part of a wider Occupational Health and Safety program.

Wearables can integrate with your OH software and provide employees and employers valuable insights into the fatigue conditions of their organization and can be piloted with wearable developers to help assess your organization’s risk levels and promote awareness of the issue.

 

Conclusions

Mental health and fatigue are two of the most underestimated factors in Occupational Health and Safety. By implementing these practical insights, your occupational health and safety outcomes can be greatly improved. Mitigating these factors through systems that include enterprise occupational health software can meaningfully contribute to a safer, healthier, and more efficient workforce.

 

Learn more

You can learn more about addressing mental health and fatigue issues in your workplace, and how occupational health and safety software and ergonomics software from Cority can contribute to better occupational health and safety outcomes at www.cority.com/resources .

About the Author

Andrew Cheung

Andrew is the Product Marketing Specialist responsible for Cority’s Occupational Health, Industrial Hygiene, and Ergonomics solutions. Before joining Cority, Andrew worked in both product and marketing capacities at an ERP provider, an outbound payments company, and a software development agency. He holds a BA in Communication & Film at Simon Fraser University.

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