Depression rates are skyrocketing, and suicide is now the 10th leading cause of death in the US. In fact, according to the CDC, more people die each year from suicide than from motor vehicle crashes. Yet despite these alarming trends, we are dealing with a preventable epidemic. And the workplace is no exception. As the environment, health and safety (EHS) professionals, if we want to positively impact worker safety and health, we need to stop neglecting mental health. It’s a difficult conversation, but an essential one.
How serious is the mental health issue in the workplace?
It’s a stark truth that US suicide rates have risen 33% from 1999 to 2017, up to 43,000 suicides per year. Workplace mental health issues, some undetected, are contributing to this number.
One in four US workers is affected by mental health problems. Along with employee satisfaction, this can impact a company’s productivity. Globally, the World Health Organization estimates that $1 trillion per year in productivity is lost to mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, equating to an economic loss of over $200 billion for employers across the planet.
But it’s not just about the bottom line. First and foremost, we need to consider workers’ well-being. Pertaining to EHS, some demographics feel the effects are a bit closer to home.
For example, men are more likely to commit suicide; it’s the second highest cause of death for men of working age (25-54) in the US. And men who work in construction industries are four times more likely to die from suicide than the national average.
Clearly, mental health is not a problem that can be ignored.
Does mental health fall under ‘EHS’?
So, should mental health be a consideration for those working in EHS roles? In short; yes, if we take a more holistic approach to managing health and safety.
As mentioned above, mental health affects productivity and the company’s bottom-line, both of which an EHS professional should be positively impacting, in alignment with the wider business. Thus, mental health is an intrinsic duty for a modern-day EHS professional, tasked with protecting people, the planet and profits.
EHS professionals are uniquely equipped with a skill set to help colleagues and operational staff maintain “health” inside and outside of the workplace by offering third party resources. Before opening this dialogue, it is necessary to develop a culture that is conducive to this issue. This is where EHS professionals can take a stance with their more collaborative, interpersonal approaches rather than their draconian counterparts.
Lastly, mental health directly affects safety. It’s the “H” in EHS – even if it is nonvisible. A distracted employee, no matter the cause, is a liability to everyone involved, especially the afflicted individual. Like the incorporation of ergonomics into the EHS sphere, another evolution is afoot. With the inevitable rise, and accompanying apprehensions, of technology in the workplace, this could become an increasingly important focal point within the EHS.
What can we do as safety professionals?
96% of the US workforce believe mental health is equally as important as physical health. It is our job as EHS professionals to ensure that these workers are supported and equipped to deal with mental health issues at work and beyond.
Here are some ways we can support the workforce to deal with mental health challenges:
Educate ourselves and help to raise awareness of mental health issues, solutions and initiatives.
Encourage difficult conversations that challenge norms and help to remove the stigma of mental health suffering. This can be particularly powerful in macho, male-dominated industries such as construction, where workers can often feel the pressure to adopt a ‘tough guy’ approach, rather than seeking help. This notion may not be shocking as it is often bared in the title “heavy industry”. A smelting facility is not for the faint of heart, yet never forget a beating heart is an ultimate goal at the end of the day.
Help to create a lower-stress, healthier work environment for employees. This could include initiatives such as; comprehensive health insurance plans, promoting a fair work/life balance, coaching management to adopt empathetic leadership styles, highlighting dietary and fitness incentives, and providing open and transparent communication.
Make it easier for employees to seek help, both internally and externally. This could mean setting up suggestion boxes or anonymous mailboxes where workers can share issues, or holding roundtables for staff to openly discuss mental health. It can also pay to provide additional resources and details for employees to use outside of work.
Here are some that may be beneficial;
Make a change in your workplace
As EHS professionals, we can no longer continue to sideline the “H” in EHS. If EHS professionals are to be perceived as business leaders, with aligned goals to all other departments, we must adopt a more proactive, holistic view towards managing and promoting EH&S in the workplace. That means taking mental well-being into account just as much as physical health. What you don’t know, can hurt.