Mental Health, Risk and Safety

by Dr Rob Long on May 6, 2017

in Mental health,Psychology of Safety and Risk,Robert Long



Mental Health, Risk and Safety – Part 1 (see part 2 here)

One of our most popular articles ever! Republished by Request

Engineer or architect woman worker headache stressUnderstanding, awareness and response to mental health issues at work is challenging. There are some particular challenges that mental health holds for risk and safety people. The purpose of this article is to provide some tips for tackling mental health at work, highlight cultural constraints in the risk and safety industry that limit understanding of mental health and, provide links and resources to help better understanding mental health at work.

One of the big challenges for risk and safety people in understanding mental health at work is its invisibility. Risk and safety professions are preoccupied with workspace, hazards and visible risks. The thinking of safety people in particular is mostly in the rational and irrational space, not non-rational (aRational) headspace. There is little education in the safety sector about the psychology of risk, the unconscious in decision making and non-rational drivers of behaviour. It seems the industry is great at expressing empathy when it perceives physical damage to a person, but when the damage is not visible empathy is hard to come by. When safety people do a ‘hazard hunt’ they are great at seeking out every petty physical factor and yet miss the majority of psychological and cultural factors that really matter in risk.

Recently I have been asked to provide training and support for a large non-government provider with 120 mental health support workers. My role is to facilitate development and learning of the four Managers. The drive for writing this article has been stimulated by this work. I can’t think of many tougher gigs than mental health support work. The only thing that is predictable in mental health support work is that everything is unpredictable, it is in itself a stressful job. I certainly couldn’t stay working myself in that area for long, I simply burnt out. I think most times I was asked to work as a safety advisor was because of my knowledge and skills in the area of mental health. I think we tend to lose sight of Work, HEALTH and Safety (WHS). I remember being regularly marginalized at work because I advocated for those with mental health conditions. However, it doesn’t take long to press the nerve with a CEO wedged between production and safety to find out that someone close to them has a mental health issue. This often changed the willingness of the CEO to seek culture change in the organisation.

I remember my first experience with mental health was with my best friend, Sam. Sam was a star at school, whilst we struggled to attract attention from the girls Sam was a magnet. He was handsome, a sports star and extroverted. Sam was the person we looked to enviously and wished we had his charm and wit, his flair was matched by his sweeping blond hair and engaging full smile. Sam met the girl of his dreams in his young twenties and married and had two children. He worked in the public service and it seemed like he had it all, a great house, lovely family, star in A grade cricket and other sports and happiness personified. However, one day all this came crashing down, Sam said it was like one day he felt great and the next day a black cloud fell on him, like an instant chemical imbalance. Sam’s depression was vicious; he survived on medication but hated its dependency. One day he left his wife, family and home, soon checked into a motel and ended his life. Few of us really understood his personal turmoil, his torment was mostly unspoken and invisible, it seems many people didn’t want to know, Sam sought nothing more than peace from the relentless trap of his own condition.

The statistics about mental health are significant:

· 3.2 million Australians experience some form of mental health condition across the full spectrum of disorders.

· The latest mental health survey conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics revealed that around one person in five (20%) had experienced a mental health disorder in the last 12 months and over twice that number (45%, or nearly half the Australian population) had experienced one at some time in their lives.

For a profile on mental health statistics go to

 http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/4125.0main+features3150Jan%202013

or, http://mhsa.aihw.gov.au/home/

Improving Mental Health at Work – Ten Do’s and Don’ts

Creating a climate of well being at work requires a few simple adjustments, here are some tips:

1. The first thing one can do is modify the current discourse (use of power) and language at work. It seems we are far too quick to call, label and name people as idiots and dickheads (eg. recent article ). Name calling and projections of superiority at work simply stifle communication and confession. One of the most important tools for tackling mental health at work is establishing a climate of confession. It is only when a person with a mental health condition is able to confess their condition that understanding and support can commence. We have to be also careful not to feed the nature of the person’s mental health eg. enabling OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) to further fuel their disorder.

2. Dispose of any mantras and language that demand absolutes for example, zero harm and zero tolerance. There is no room for compassion, understanding and tolerance in cultures that are rigid, authoritarian and absolute. Zero language and discourse is one of the best ways to suppress confession and reporting. Zero discourse actually creates anxiety and depression because of the fundamental dynamic is discordant with human fallibility and reality. In zero harm organisations there is only space for the super human, weakness, mistakes and vulnerability must not go unpunished.

3. Seek out effective training in mental health eg. https://www.mhfa.com.au/cms/

4. Create a climate at work that is less fearful and more welcoming. People with mental health conditions already have a significant level of fear of bullying, victimization and distrust. A climate of fear at work reduces opportunities for communication and seeking support.

5. Focus more on skills in communication, consultation and conversation for supervisors and managers. Human Dymensions programs (http://www.humandymensions.com/services-a-programs) focus on developing these skills, on human judgment and decision making and the unconscious. The Human Dymensions iKNOW program is focused on wellbeing and resilience of organisations and people. If you would like training or support in these areas contact admin@humandymensions.com

6. Think more about the unseen in risk, reduce the preoccupation with prioritizing the physicality’s of risk.

7. Create a learning organisation climate rather than a punishing organisation climate. Nothing is more powerful in suppressing communication about mental health than the idea that information is learning. Experiential learning and non-didactic methods of learning are the most effective in enabling confession, communication and change. Telling cultures crush learning and openness. Telling organisations foster secrecy and non-confession.

8. Encourage the visibility and normalization of Employee Assistance Programs (EAP). Despite the fact that mental health is so high in the population, the use of free EAP programs averages approximately 3% in most organisations that provide an EAP service. Creating a culture that normalizes EAP use actually saves the cost of the service in productivity gains ten fold.

9. Create a climate of inclusion; watch out for those on the outer, who don’t seem to fit in. It’s easy to punish the ‘weirdos’ and ‘eccentrics’ wave them goodbye out of the organisation. Zero harm culture is great for revolving doors, SKUTA (swift kick up the arse), punishing culture and dishing out ‘the sack’.

10. Know and engage with mental health support services. The best thing is to invite the services into the workplace on an informal basis. Rather than have presentations, pay the experts to become a part of the organizational culture, just let them hang about and have coffee and lunch with the people, the rest will just happen.

A Special Note on Comorbidity

If you have not heard of comorbidity before you are not alone. Comorbidity simply means the co-occurrence of one or more diseases or disorders in an individual. Comorbid disorders are common, especially in specialist mental health and addiction services. People who have comorbid mental health disorders usually have a range of other accompanying factors that complicate the mental health disorder eg. alcohol, prescription drugs, illicit drugs, dual disorders (anxiety, depression, anger, OCD, distress and self harm). Comorbid people have poorer outcomes than those who have a single disorder. For example, the treatments of alcohol dependence and depression both tend to be less effective when conducted in the presence of the other disorder than when comorbidity is not present. A few links below will assist understanding.

http://www.health.gov.au/internet/publications/publishing.nsf/Content/drugtreat-pubs-comorbid-toc~drugtreat-pubs-comorbid-4~drugtreat-pubs-comorbid-4-3

http://www.nationaldrugstrategy.gov.au/internet/drugstrategy/publishing.nsf/Content/FE16C454A782A8AFCA2575BE002044D0/$File/mono71.pdf

http://www.adca.org.au/sites/default/files/files/policy-positions/adca_%27s%20policy%20position%20on%20comorbidity.pdf

http://www.utas.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0004/193423/Comorbidity_Competencies_Skills_Indicators.pdf

Mental Health Links and Resources

http://www.mhatwork.com.au/

http://www.apsc.gov.au/publications-and-media/current-publications/mental-health

http://www.humanrights.gov.au/publications/2010-workers-mental-illness-practical-guide-managers

http://www.mindmatters.edu.au/docs/default-source/resources-archive/understanding-mental-illnesses.pdf?sfvrsn=3

http://www.beyondblue.org.au/

http://www.eap.com.au/filemanager/apr08_newsletters/mental_health.htm

https://www.mentalhealth.asn.au/home/item/62.html

http://www.anglicare.org.au/our-services/mental-health

http://www.mifellowship.org/content/fact-sheets

http://www.mentalhealthcommission.gov.au/

http://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/

http://www.dualdiagnosis.org.au/home/

http://www.headspace.org.au/

READ PART 2 HERE

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.
  • Neil, yes, aware of the systematic indivisibility of mental health, demonstrates where it sits in organisational priorities, well below paper cuts, bruises and strains. Anything that might show up on the injury rate register is deemed harmful.

  • Neil

    Rob,

    Would you also believe that Doctors spend less than one day on mental health in their six years studying/training yet they are the first people recommended to see. I agree, it is certainly upside down when it comes to training/ learning about Health AND Safety (being two separate things).

    I am a big advocate for mental health and facilitate workshops on resilience. Funnily enough (and I guess its a sign of what really is important), people are unable to attend due to the ‘economic climate’. So when the chips are down and the budget strings pulled tight, its the employees health and wellbeing that is put aside over the profits of the business yet one can’t happen without the other.

  • wow what a great paradigm a holistis look at H&S via dressing the individual.
    As H&S professionals we concentrate on the few things we can control like the work environment and behaviors.
    the reality is safety is directly correlated to the attitude of the individual and the group, within a buiness frame work there seems to be plenty of discussion of how to change the “culture” or group mentality around H&S this is great but is limited by the individuals feelings and issues.
    What do we have to gain by identifying with our individuals and getting to know thier worlds?
    certainly at the very least a better understanding of the person and perhaps what thier outside lifes priorities and values are.
    How can this help? I believe that taking the time to get to learn about an individual must increase the persons sense of worth within your business team.
    It can also break down the barriers often created by group dynamics and allow more open communication.
    I am still amazed at the amazing variety of worldviews each person has depending on the cultural, socioeconomic and family dynamics modified by thier personal experiences and choices.
    I believe it would be a huge step forward when we understand the people we work with and can holistically include them not as a part of a system but as the key foundation of the system where we give them autonomy and enable safe growth.
    Intrinsic motivations cannot be relied on to keep people safe as the story said the depression Sam had was overwhelming to the point he could not function within his family group, how would he have been at work? We cannot fix these types of mental issues but with understanding and support th eperson may not feel like they have to face it on thier own.
    I don’t have the answers but the type of thinking in these posts I feel is certainly the only real way forward with individual growth, business growth and as a by product safety and health.

  • Wynand, The Cert IV and Dip WHS has nothing on mental health in it, unbelievable. Mind you, there is so much trivial stuff I would take out and other important people and communication stuff I would put in, I am not surprised, the industry has the whole nature of safety upside down.
    Unknown, I trust you have some support or find some peace from the pain you are suffering.

  • Wynand

    There is another (oversimplified, but I believe real) safety consequence here. Irrespective of how we feel about the philosophies in the workplace (Behaviour based safety, Heinrich’s pyramid etc), there is a link between human behaviour and the chance that there can be an accident. Distracted workers, preoccupied workers etc will be more likely to make a mistake with dire consequences. I also believe there is an element of caring in a culture that provide high levels of safety. (I have to care for myself and for others to be a “safe worker”.) Some mental conditions, and I believe in particular depression, takes away that care. If you are so depressed that you do not care what happens to you, I believe you will be a more “dangerous” worker (for no fault on your side). I therefore believe if we ignore the fact of mental issues at work, we ignore one of the biggest risk factors in the workplace.

  • Unknown

    That’s how most of us end up; Just like Sam. And people just don’t get it, unless they know of it personally.

    Suicide is like trying to prevent injuries or accident, you see people doing the wrong thing but you do nothing to help them. We are mostly all too into ourselves and lack care to take note, and if you say anything, you suddenly become a person with a contagious disease that people dare not go near, this only feeds your insecurities, paranoia and self doubt as a human being. You drive around and every tree looks solid enough, or has a thick branch to hang noose from, you sit at the beach and you say to yourself, drowning is easy, you think getting drunk will change your course, only to wake the next day at the same old crossroad. You get accused of being different because all you ever do is act, you are never yourself, you try and be happy all the time, you cannot let them see you down. The doctor gives you drugs to balance you up, your wife says she notices a difference, but you hate the numbing it gives you, so you don’t take all of them. Then you have a high that lasts for months, you know your trouble because it will end up as it always does, down a black deep pit of nothing, but at this point, you’re bulletproof, you only need 4 hrs of sleep, your mind races with an influx of ideas and dreams, you talk fast, think fast, work hard, appear over confident and do stupid things. Then when you start come down, or be semi normal, you have to apologies for being so full on, this only lowers you further and then the next thing is the fall down, where not a thing is good, or could be good, there just seems no point, but somehow you come through this time, but sooner or later, there won’t be a next time.

    How do I know, because I live with it

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