Taking Action to Improve Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace

A. Richey

In a webinar for CIRPD, Dr Merv Gilbert, Adjunct Professor with the Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health and Addiction, pointed out that Freud believed love and work to be the cornerstones of our humanity.

Dr Gilbert began by questioning how is work is good for our mental health. 

  • It's social (relationships, talking, interaction)
  • Work gives a sense of purpose
  • It provides a sense of self-worth or accomplishment
  • Work provides structure
  • It provides an income
  • It provides opportunity to learn new skills and to develop new competencies.

Dr Gilbert believes that good work can be good for our psychological health, but for too many adults, their work is experienced as compromising their psychological health. All experience sadness and stress, but this does not mean that there is an illness at play.

"Work is good for your mental health and work can make you crazy." This quote was from the standing Senate committee on social affairs, science and technology spoken by the Honourable Michael JL Kirby, chair.

Employers have a choice. They can choose to do nothing. The outcome is increased costs, decreased productivity/morale, loss of skilled workforce, increased liability. They can choose to do something. The outcome is decreased costs, increase productivity/morale, recruitment/retention of staff and discretionary effort.

The goal is to create psychologically healthy and safe workplaces that meet the needs of employers and employees. 

In a psychologically safe and healthy workplace:

  • Staff are proud of their organisation and care about the work they do
  • There are opportunities for input into how work is done
  • There is ongoing learning and development at all levels
  • Interactions are courteous and respectful
  • Workplace psychosocial hazards are promptly identified and dealt with
  • Staff experiencing distress are supported

In order to improve workplace psychological health and safety, a strategic approach is needed. Employers should begin by assessing and addressing the risks to psychological health and safety, managers should be trained in engaged performance management, employees trained in psychological safety skills, and the organisation should provide timely support to staff who are struggling. 

The strategic approach needs to be integrated into the organisational plan, vision and values. There needs to be a commitment and communication from senior management, meaningful employee involvement and it needs to be based on a clear business case. There may be moral, compliance, financial or other issues to take into account. Organisations also need to be ready for change. Assess your organisation through asking employees and yourselves to assess what can be changed. This might include grievances and health and safety incident responses for example.

Manager training is critical. It provides them with the skills to respond to staff showing behaviours which may indicate a psychological health and safety issue. It may also be useful to build it into supervisor competencies.

Employees may also receive training in psychological health and safety skills. It's not a one size fits all approach, it needs to be adapted to fit the needs of the worker, the workplace and the organisation. These skills may include resiliency training, problem solving, communication skills, psychological health capabilities (not just awareness raising). New workers in particular may require additional skills to deal with the challenges of the workplace. Other training may include coaching in antidepressant self-care skills.

Employers also need to provide timely and relevant support to employees who are struggling at work. Addressing psychological health problems at an early stage can prevent more serious problems, functional impairment and long term disability. Employers may:

  • Provide access to good work oriented self-care tools and psychological treatment
  • Support safe and productive stay at work
  • Provide psychologically oriented disability management

Dr Gilbert's full webinar for CIRPD can be found here.