How does mental health fit into workplace safety?

World Mental Health Day 2017 on October 10th is an important reminder that the mental health of our employees is an integral part of workplace safety. Many organisations have made great strides in ensuring their workers are alert to the hazards around them and developed the tools to manage environmental and occupational risk. However, we have been less successful in tackling the culture of silence around mental health – and that’s a critical business issue.

What is mental health?

Mental health, as defined by MIND is an expression of our emotional, psychological and social wellbeing. It’s something that we all share and is central to how we feel about ourselves, our lives, the people we know and the jobs that we do. Our mental state affects our performance and our interactions with colleagues, clients and customers. According to the HSE, one in four of us will suffer from mental health problems at some point in our lives.

Stress has become the number one cause of long term sickness absence in the UK.  Mental health issues in the workplace – including stress, anxiety and depression – is thought to cost employers more than £26bn a year.

With common mental health problems on the rise employers need to act. Businesses of all sizes have a responsibility to play their part.

SMEs must treat mental health issues as a priority

Every employer has a statutory duty regarding mental health and wellbeing. However, businesses, large and small should be going above and beyond HSE guidelines to really look after their employees. Large organisations report allocating 11% of their annual operating budget to wellbeing, compared to SME’s who invest only 0.5% of their budget.

Professor Dame Carol Black, speaking recently at the British Safety Council, urged SME Managers to ‘get on board with the mental health agenda.’ Black claims that mental health issues impact small companies to a greater degree than their larger counterparts. She explains:

‘Due to their size and fewer resources, SMEs cannot afford to have employees not working to their full capacity.”

The signs that employers need to look out for, according to Black are: “poor productivity and employee engagement, as well as various symptoms of stress, which express themselves in a growing propensity to take sick leave, increased turnover and presentism”. The British Safety Council have recorded her advice in a short film available here.

Simple steps

Mental health may seem like an issue that only large companies can afford to be concerned about. But that isn’t the case. Simply by taking more ownership, and engaging with the mental health agenda, can vastly improve the wellbeing of your staff.

So, who’s responsibility is it? The short answer is – everyone’s. We all have a moral and ethical obligation to look out for our work colleagues and learn to recognise the signs of mental health issues.

The idea of wellbeing needs to be embedded in a broader ‘safety culture’, where talking about mental health is as normal as discussing any other safety issues.  Businesses need to use the same processes for mental health as they do for safety. Health and Safety Managers, alongside HR and Line Managers should take a multidisciplinary approach to expanding workplace conversations about stress and mental health.

Making it easier to have difficult conversations

People management skills will have a major impact on any mental health initiative. So much stigma still exists around mental health that employees often feel too embarrassed to ask for help. People will often rather suffer in silence than risk self-disclosure

A safe workplace is not only about physical safety – it’s about your employee’s psychological safety too. That means creating a culture of trust, by valuing open communication skills and encouraging honest self-disclosure.

All too often a Manager’s response to an employee with a mental health issue is to send them home. But this may be the least effective strategy.

Here’s a few suggestions on how to have a conversation about an employee’s mental health.

  • Listen – Make sure you provide a quiet, confidential space to talk and listen without judgement
  • Ask –  ‘What can I do to help?’:  Your employee is the best judge of what the problem is, and may well know what the right course of action could be. This might also be the time to seek feedback on any issue with managerial styles that may be contributing to stress
  • Support – Consider options such as flexible or remote working, help with workload, time off and signposting or directing them to other resources
  • Follow Up – Make sure you leave the door open for ongoing conversation, but also agree a formal follow up

What can you do to improve your organisation’s mental health?

There are some practical steps, that organisations of all sizes can take to improve the mental health of their employees:

Increase mental health literacy-Invest in basic mental health training so that Managers can be trained to spot signs of stress and burnout in staff. Share this with your team and encourage conversations around it.

Familiarise yourself with your statutory duties, and read up to date literature about mental health– The BITC provides an excellent toolkit for employers and is a great place to start.

Appoint a mental health champion -This doesn’t have to be someone in management, peer to peer support encourages engagement and collaboration.

Signpost to wider services – There are some mental health issues that need the help of professionals and it’s important to know where and how to access that help. Your job is to bridge the gap between your business community and professional help if needed. MIND is a great resource.

Encourage good work habits – As a business you can do a great deal to minimise the amount of stress in your workplace. Flexible working, taking lunch breaks, open communication, taking time to switch off, work/life balance are all things that help promote ‘safe working’.

Recruit for soft skills – Managers and peers with effective communication skills and high emotional intelligence play a vital part in establishing a psychologically safe workplace. Our mental health and wellbeing relies so much on our ability to trust others. We need to feel safe enough to ask for help. That kind of environment is created by managers and staff who have highly developed soft skills and are emotionally genuine. For more information about the importance of recruiting ‘soft skills’ in safety click here.

Mental health in your workplace

The theme of this year’s world mental health day is ‘Mental health in the Workplace’ so it’s a timely reminder to start thinking about what you can do to raise awareness in your organisation. Businesses, large and small, should look at their wellbeing strategy and consider how the mental health of their employees can be improved. The MHFA (Mental Health First Aid) is a great starting for ideas and ways in which to support the campaign.

Use the hastag #WORLDMENTALHEALTHDAY to share the work your organisation is doing to raise awareness of mental health.

The information contained in this blog article has been created for marketing purposes and is not official guidance and should not be used as a substitute for official Food Safety, Fire Safety and Health & Safety advice. Shield Safety take no responsibility if the information in the blog article is used to form part of a safety management system or used to form part of any legal or regulatory compliance for your business. For official guidance and to engage with Shield Safety services please do call our team on 020 3740 3744 or email

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