Mental Stress in the Workplace

While the entrenched concept of health and safety in the workplace focuses on physical illness and injury, mental stress is an issue that cannot – and must not – be overlooked. Employers need to consider the implications of mental and psychological stress as it relates to various jobs, as well as how it can be a major factor during any time of crisis in the workplace.

Issues range from noise and risks that have to be taken in the line of duty, to bullying and discrimination.

Unless steps are taken to minimize the dangers of potential psychological hazards, and to educate both employers and employees about psychological safety, this type of stress in the workplace is going to increase.

Today most countries worldwide have focused occupational health and safety legislation that doesn’t address the need for psychological safety in the workplace, or give ways in which employers should protect their employees from mental stress.

In the US, for example, the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), specifically EXCLUDES mental illness unless “work-relatedness” can be proved. The onus is on employees to get written evidence from a physician or licensed health care professional (PLHCP), while employers are entitled to get a second opinion. The US Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety & Health Administration does, however, include both “mental disorder” and “mental stress” in its list of possible work-related “injuries”.

It is a known fact that Workers’ Compensation claims against employers for “mental stress” have increased dramatically in North America in the past couple of decades. In addition, a growing number of court rulings outside of both the US and Canadian OSH legislation have placed the onus for psychological health on the shoulders of employers.

The response to this has been the development of a number of very useful free guides for employers, and in Canada, the development of a voluntary national standard on Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace. This is due for release in the second half of 2012 (probably September) and will be available free for five years to encourage immediate implementation.

Mental Stress and Why it is Important

Mental and psychological stress presents in different forms, and can affect different people in wide range of ways. It may also be caused by a variety of factors, many of which are unseen.

Commonly caused by harassment and bullying, discrimination and sometimes violence, stress quickly leads to anxiety and depression and both legal and illegal substance abuse. While researchers don’t generally link “mental stress” to serious mental illness (like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia), they concede that it can lead to more serious physical and psychological disorders over time.

Merv Gilbert, adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, maintains that while research indicates one in four employees probably have psychological difficulties of some sort, this figure is probably closer to one in two whom, as he puts it “meet the criteria for diagnosis” and possibly the need for professional counseling.

He also states that psychological health issues cost the Canadian economy as much as $15-billion a year, and the issue should therefore be tackled not only for ethical reasons, but because it makes good business and economic sense.

Dr Kevin Kelloway, researcher in occupational health psychology at Saint Mary’s University in Haliflax, Nova Scotia, echoes his sentiments. Not only is it costing the country money (which impacts on all employers), but his research shows that 40% of the costs insurance providers face, link directly to stress claims.

Risks and Hazards of Mental Stress

The most common risks and hazards of mental anxiety and stress at work lead to depression, debilitating anxiety and often what is described as “burnout”. The symptoms are so bad that the employee simply cannot continue to work.

But the actual causes are vast and varied, with some jobs dealing more obvious “risks and hazards” than others. For instance, those people who work in emergency services, including ambulance drivers and firemen, are constantly exposed to traumatic scenes and human suffering. Those who work in construction and other related industries not only face physical risks (which of course are covered in health and safety legislation), but they also face secondary factors that could lead to psychological rather than physical stress. Intense noise is just one example.

Increasingly the risks and hazards of bullying, harassment and violence are being recognized, along with the intense stress they can produce. As a country, Canada has taken the lead in terms of a number of legislative initiatives that define these actions specifically in terms of “mental injury”.

Preventative Measures to Avoid Mental Stress in the Workplace

It is becoming widely accepted that employers need to do all they can to provide a work environment that protects the mental health of their employees, offering not only physical safety, but psychological “comfort” as well. The question is how can employers do this; and why should they?

Dr Kelloway outlines a remarkably simple and practical approach that he says will not only protect employers from potential libel cases, but will ultimately result in happier, more productive and profitable businesses.

The first step is to assess risks and hazards using accepted “tools”. This enables employers and business owners to establish an existing baseline that can then be regularly monitored.

Once existing issues have been identified, action should be three-pronged, in the form of primary, secondary and tertiary intervention.

Primary intervention

involves fixing the problem or at least changing or minimizing stressors. So if people are stressed because of workload, hire more staff. If the workplace is excessively noisy, and you can’t reduce the noise, give your staff more frequent breaks.

Secondary intervention

is necessary when you can’t fix the problem. For instance it might be the very customers you depend on for business who are guilty of harassment and verbal abuse. In this case employees need to be shown how to react to stressors in a different way. By reframing the stress, and seeing difficult customers as a challenge, their rudeness will tend to have less impact psychologically.

Tertiary intervention

is what many professionals term “healing the wounded”. If managers are properly trained and given the tools and knowledge to identify psychological stress, they can suggest outside intervention, support, or counseling.

Even more importantly, says Dr Kelloway, employers need to practise positive psychology and consciously do whatever they can to make the workplace healthy and happy.

If people love their jobs, are respected and praised for good work, and have good relationships with those around them, they will be psychologically healthy and mental stress should never be a factor.

Compliments of HRReporter and YouTube


Author: Penny Swift

Editor: Shyamala Nathan-Turner

This information is offered as information only and is designed to promote Health & Safety in the workplace and the community. It is subject to change.

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