The Role of Mental Health in Workplace Safety

By: Jedha Dening, IndustrySearch writer
01 June, 2016

When it comes to workplace safety, physical safety is usually on the agenda.

However, according to The Online Recruitment Resource, "some of the worst world disasters caused by humans were the result of not being present enough to make an effective decision."

With the constant stream of information people are now exposed to, the mind can often be preoccupied, leaving little room for being present in the workplace. This, coupled with stress, anxiety and depression, demands the attention of employers and workers alike to consider the role mental health plays in workplace safety.

What is Mental Health?

Mental illnesses such as anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar mood disorder, and depression, are types of mental health issues. Frequently these are diagnosed medical issues, but not always, as an individual's mental health also encompasses their sense of wellbeing, confidence and self-esteem.

Therefore, mental health issues can be associated with relationships, environments, abilities, and emotions that surround dealing with work and life challenges.

Regardless, a mental health problem influences how an individual thinks, behaves, and interacts to varying degrees.

According to more than 50% of Australian workers, employers just aren't doing enough to provide support for mental health issues.

Is Mental Health Costing You Money?

Depression and anxiety are the greatest mental health issues in the workplace. According to Pro Bono Australia, "six million working days are lost per year as a result of depression."

While absenteeism costs an average of $7 billion per year, presenteeism is estimated to cost an additional $26 billion. The cost of each untreated individual mental health case estimated at close to $10K.

Mental Health Rates in Industrial Settings

Women have a higher overall rate of mental health issues, at least, according to current reported data. Though, mental health issues in men frequently go unrecognised, undiagnosed and untreated.

Deeply embedded masculine norms and the stigma associated with "coming out" with a mental health condition, largely keep people's lips sealed, fewer than 3 out of 10 reporting issues to their employer. Men are also less likely to seek out information, help or even visit a doctor.

Though all these statistics are not Australian specific, the reported mental health rates in male-dominated industries are:

  • Agriculture (1.3-17.3%)
  • Construction (2.4-11%)
  • Manufacturing (2.6-23.4%)
  • Mining (19.3-28%)
  • Transportation (2.5-13.3%)
  • Utilities and manual workers (4.4-12.6%)

Compared to national averages, Australians working as truck drivers or in mining industries have significantly higher rates of depression. And overall, in Australia, there is a higher rate of depression among male-dominated industries compared to the general population.    

Mental Health Risk Factors in Industrial Settings

Risk factors that impact mental health in industrial settings, may include:

  • Isolated/solitary work
  • Excessive or irregular workloads
  • Poor physical conditions
  • Lack of control
  • Monotonous tasks

Mental Health for Shift Workers in the Petroleum Industry

In many cases the evidence available for industrial settings is limited. However, one study published in Industrial Health, 2015, looked at shift schedules, work factors, and mental health in onshore/ offshore Norwegian petroleum industry workers.

They found:

  • No negative impact of night or shift work on overall mental health.
  • Onshore, revolving shift workers did have higher levels of neuroticism compared to day workers.
  • Swing and revolving shift workers report less job control and support than permanent day or night workers.
  • Lower mental health issues were associated with sense of job control, role clarity, and support. 

Implementing Mental Health Success Programs

The good news for both workers and companies is there are many helpful resources available. For companies in particular, establishing frameworks and best practices for dealing with mental health as an ongoing workplace safety issue, yields many great benefits - cost savings, less injuries, increased productivity.

Below is a list of resources for further exploration of mental health issues and implementing mental health success programs in your organisation.

1. A study conducted in a large industrial manufacturing plant in Canada, published in Society and Mental Health, 2016, explores the complexities of management dealing with mental health issues in the workplace.

2. The International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, suggests the following things could be considered:

  • Mental/ physical health education
  • Relaxation and breaks
  • Activity modification
  • Physical environment modifications
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy
  • Identifying reasons and generating solutions for stress
  • Individual or group work on stress coping skills
  • Facilitation of access to clinical treatment

3. A pilot-study published in BioMed Central, 2016, with Victorian police officers explains how they will go about implementing a plan, mainly through psychosocial working conditions and mental health literacy.

4. Beyond Blue has a free program and 30-page booklet for companies to get started toward creating a mentally healthy workplace, along with resources for workers.

5. After taking Beyond Blue's program, Sodexo, decided to make mental health a priority and focus. They implemented information, training and support, with beneficial results reported for Business Insider.

Because mental health influences the way individual's think, behave, and interact, the role of mental health is equally, if not more important than, physical considerations.

Do you have any suggestions or resources to add? Please leave your comments below.