Mind Matters: The Crucial Link Between Mental Health, Psychosocial Risks, and Workplace Safety with Anna Feringa
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In recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month, we’re very excited to feature Anna Feringa, expert in leadership and Mental Health and best practices in workplace Mental Health, on the podcast this week. “No one can be 100% safe in any workplace if they’re not healthy both mind and body.” When an individual is not well in their mind, they’re more inclined to make poor decisions resulting in more physical injuries and human error in the workplace. Tune in as Anna emphasizes the crucial link between mental health, psychosocial risks, and workplace safety. Discover insightful strategies for mitigating these risks within your organization to reduce injury and cultivate a positive workplace culture.
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Real leaders leave a legacy. They capture the hearts and minds of their teams. Their origin story puts the safety and well-being of their people first. Great companies ubiquitously have safe yet productive operations. For those companies, safety is an investment, not a cost for the C suite. It’s a real topic of daily focus. This is The Safety Guru with your host, Eric Michrowski, a globally recognized ops and safety guru, public speaker, and author. Are you ready to leave a safety legacy? Your legacy’s success story begins now.
Hi, and welcome to The Safety Guru. May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Today, I am very excited to have a great guest on our show. Her name is Anna Feringa. She’s a workplace mental health consultant with a background in organizational psychology, has been in the field for well over 18 years. She’s also a global top 10 LinkedIn voice of 2022 and a leading expert in mental health. Very good to have you on the show today. I’d love to get started maybe with a bit of a background as to how did you get passionate about this space, mental health, and we’ll obviously talk about mental health and safety.
Thanks, Eric. It’s absolute pleasure to be on and a very warm welcome to all of our listeners. Thank you for joining us. Look, the field of workplace mental health, it’s a pretty hot topic now.
18 years ago, not so much. But particularly in Australia, it’s become certainly top of policy, forefront of mind. But how I got into it, it’s a really interesting question, Eric. I went through university with these grandiose ideas of becoming a criminal psychologist and spent a lot of time in our glorious Australian prisons and so forth, had an absolute ball, but looked at all the psychologists around me that were 30 years my senior, and I’m like, they were just completely devoid of emotion. And I’m like, I want to be able to feel empathy in 30 years, so I’m going to switch. And I ended up going into the personal injury field. And what that means, because it’s quite a conflated topic, what that means here in Australia is I was working in the field of both post motor vehicle accident and workplace injuries. So having a look at all the types of particular mental conditions, psychological conditions that can result after being exposed to trauma. Sure. So that led me down a lot of years in the insurance path, personal injury, regulatory explorations, legislation, or the very thin legislation that existed in Australia at the time.
And I just spat out at the end as a bit of a mixed bucket of knowledge. And I’m like, Right, well, rather than responding to injuries once they’ve occurred, particularly in the workplace, what’s going on in the prevention space? And there was this massive gap, and there still is this massive gap. So that’s what keeps me very busy as a workplace mental health consultant is getting in and working with workplaces to help them firstly understand what it means and also the benefits and consequences of either proactively engaging in good mental health and good work design or not. So, it is one of the leading causes of disability across the globe. It is costing the globe in excess of $6 trillion a year in lost productivity, injury recovery expenses, turnover, you name it. So, it’s a really big industry for making sure that workplaces have more knowledge and better structure around how to keep their people safer whilst they do their role.
Excellent. Great segue into first theme I’d like to touch on, which is mental health is not separate from safety. So, can you expand in terms of the linkage? Because a lot of organizations look at mental health on one side in HR, and then they’ll have safety separately looking at how do I prevent injuries. Tell me a little bit about the link between both.
Yeah, sure. Firstly, if someone could take their brain out of their body and sit it next to them and go, this is a separate entity to my body, then that’s my first linkage, Eric, is no one can be 100 % safe in any workplace if they’re not healthy, both mind and body. So, it is absolutely a safety issue. For far too long, and it continues to be, it’s been, Okay, let’s keep everyone physically safe. Let’s invest in education. Let’s make sure that there’s a bunch of liability around keeping someone physically safe. But this whole wellness of the mind piece, we’ll just chuck some yogurt at them and maybe a few fruit boxes and call them a benefit. But if you at any stage get depressed or anxious at work, it’s really got nothing to do with us. We just hope that you make the right decisions whilst you continue to decline in your cognitive abilities. And we efficiently refer to it as psychosocial ergonomics. And that is, if someone’s not well in the mind for whatever reason, they’re more inclined to make poor decisions, which is resulting in physical injuries and human error. So, they are absolutely linked.
A fruit box and a resilience training session is not working. And I challenge anyone to show me the evidence that it is working. And when I say working, I mean, it is not preventing injury. It’s simply just helping them recover and then chucking staff back into the fryer pan where they got injured in the first place. So, it’s like this vicious little cycle of, we’ll fix you, but we won’t change the environment. So, with physical safety, if something is allegedly going to cause someone harm, then workplaces jump to it. They fix it. They assess how things can be done differently. Whereas we’re not there with mental health yet. We’re 30 years behind where physical safety is. But if we don’t treat mental health along the same hierarchy as safety, then we’re going to see a lot more people become very ill. We’re going to see companies go backwards, both in ROI and reputation, and basically fail to be enterprise ready for the future. So, this is a big thing. And it absolutely is safety. And until it’s recognized as safety, people are going to be falling at the forefront of poor mental health and workplaces and suffering the consequences for it. And I think from what you’re sharing, and I definitely see data to that effect, when you’ve got people that are… If you’re not addressing the wellbeing, the mental health component, you’re also going to have more workplace injuries. So, it’s also a way to get to the next plateau of injury reduction.
Absolutely. You’ve just nailed it, Eric. There’s no other way to explain it. Healthy people work better, are better, perform better. And when I say perform, look, it’s great to hit targets, but it’s also great to come home safely. And every employer really has the responsibility to keep their employees safe to the point where it’s reasonable and practicable, of course. We don’t have a silver bullet for everyone. And there’s things beyond employer’s controls. But at this stage, nothing’s really in place anywhere. So, there’s efforts, there’s intentions. A lot of workplaces are well intended, but we’re still waiting our way through what really works. And I’m sure that you and I’ll branch out into that later. But it is a very infantile space, but yet such an urgent one.
Absolutely. So, you’ve touched on the value of addressing mental health from the trillions that are being lost. You’ve touched on the impact on physical safety. What else can we add to the case for mental health focus in a workplace?
There are bucket loads. I guess the question is, do you want to talk about the consequences, or do you want to talk about the benefits? Because there’s plenty of both. I guess I’ll just start with the benefits, and that is, if you’re people working in a well-designed role, it all really comes down to work design. And that is the bit that freaks companies out. And I mean that respectfully to our listeners. And that’s a lot of work to do. We can’t revaluate how work is done. It’s just too much of a disruption to the business. So, my response to that is, can everyone just take a look at what companies did two years ago? For a pandemic, we literally flipped companies on their heads in two seconds to keep production happening and to keep people safe. So, companies are really running out of excuses with the no budget, no time, no resources to revaluate how work is done to keep you safer because your staff have seen you do it. And so, one of the consequences is that staff will simply move on to another employer where they feel safer. And that’s why we’ve got the great resignation sweeping the globe, because people have realized they don’t really have to stay.
There are exceptional circumstances, of course. If I don’t have to stay in a place that I hate or that I feel unsafe in, or that I’m working in a role that is burning me out and no one’s doing anything about it because they have the attitude that, well, that’s just always the way it’s always been done. If you can’t do it, there’s the door. The benefit of investing in this area is you’re going to get better talent acquisition. You’re going to get better people that are a better job fit. You’re going to get people that work well for you. And if you’re not prepared in this industry, then buckle up because you’re going to get a bunch of people that are not going to be fit for your role. Your personal injury or compensation claims, depending on what scheme you’re under, are going to skyrocket. Your culture is going to suffer, which is going to impact your bottom line, which is going to cost you money anyway. So, it’s about investing a little to save a lot. So, the benefits are you will be competitive. You’ll have better people. You will have higher production. You will have less injuries.
You will have a better culture. And that all really serves, with a bunch of evidence base, to suggest that that’s what good work looks like.
We’ll dive into the topic of work design soon because I think it’s important for listeners to understand what it means. But before we go there, one topic that is emerging definitely in Australia, it’s starting to emerge in other locations is the concept of psychosocial risk. Can you tell me more? What is it? Big words, but a lot of people still haven’t heard of it.
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it’s become legislation in Australia, Eric, and half the people still don’t know what it means. It’s actually in our basic fundamental laws now, and people are like, what does psychosocial mean? So basically, what psychosocial risk is, is anything that could potentially cause you a mental injury or mental harm. Okay. So, it’s like you and I walking on a mine site, and a particular pathway to an open cut mine has not been clearly identified. Therefore, the risk to you and I, Eric, is one of us is likely to become injured. So psychosocial risk is anything that in the course of work, or in the course of the environment, or in the course of interpersonal activity between people, coworkers, managers, staff, that can cause someone to become mentally harmed. But then I’m a very big stickler for terms. And again, I sat on a round table last night. And again, what we had to do is clean up language. So, people are using psychosocial risk and psychological safety as one term. They are absolutely fundamentally related but to different contract. So psychosocial risk is anything throughout the course of employment, interpersonal, environmental that can harm you.
Psychological safety is creating a workplace where people feel safe enough to voice their opinion, raise risk without fear of retribution. So, you can’t have one without the other. You need to clean up your psychosocial risks before you can achieve what I call the pinnacle or the oracle, and that is a psychologically safe workplace. So psychosocial risk really is just like a physical safety risk, but it relates to the mind.
So, what are some of the mitigating factors that organizations can explore? Because this is a fairly broad definition of a risk in terms of everything that could harm you. It’s quite broad.
It is. And it’s also very subjective. So, I guess, and again, this is such an infantile space. So I’d love to turn around and go, here’s A to Z mitigation strategies. Eric, here they are. Like, globe, please learn them. But in Australia, we’re understanding the concept that, okay, it is now in our work health safety legislation that employers need to be proactive in mitigating risk. And everyone’s just looking at each other going, Okay, great laws, but how do we do that exactly? So, we’re seeing this area of psychosocial risk assessments starting to emerge. And there’s good ones and there’s not so good ones, as with any new concept that’s been born. So, I guess one of the mitigating factors would be to pick up one of these psychosocial risk assessments. And there’s many of them. I would just plug it into Google and see what comes up, because it’s going to vary from country to country. I can make some great recommendations in Australia, but I’m not here to do that today. So, what that means for our listeners is you need to talk to your people and ask them, what is your risk tolerance? If you’re working in retail and getting abused up team times a day, sure, there’s a factor in there that we can’t necessarily control.
But what are we doing afterwards? I mean, if you’re working in emergency services, you’re going to see a lot of trauma. We can’t necessarily control that. But what we can control is how much access are they getting? How much exposure are they getting? How can we control that and rotate that? How are we checking in on our people to make sure that they’re coping? How are we monitoring appropriate leave and downtime and debriefing? Or has all of that become automated? So, step one, consider a psychosocial risk assessment. Within those risk assessments, people are consulted anyway. But there’s other ways you can talk to your people. And thirdly, you need to make sure that your leaders are, in some shape, way, or form, provided the skill to be able to have a conversation with their team and their people. So firstly, they need to understand what psychosocial risk is before they can inquire about it with their people in a safe and protected way. So, we can’t really mitigate risks that we don’t know are there. And the best way to identify risk is by talking to people, talking to staff, going, What’s tolerable? What’s not tolerable?
How’s the role designed? Do you have any suggestions about the way it can be done better? Because that’s where a lot of, particularly, Australian companies are finding or farming the gold is, wow, our staff that we press play on every day actually have some pretty great ideas about how we can better improve some of y our social safety. So definitely risk assessments, definitely staff consultation in whatever form, focus groups, the good old survey. Companies tend to eye roll a little bit around surveys, but it’s important that however you can gather that information because that’s where you’ll start to identify gaps and that’s where you’ll start to identify risk. Sure. Like you said before, Eric, it is a really complex field because it’s subjective. So what a lot of organizations are doing is gathering what the main risks are. So, there might be some outliers of people getting stressed for different reasons. But okay, a lot of our staff in this division are burnt out for this reason. Well, let’s just have a look at this reason, not 50 million different reasons as to why I’m burnt out. If there’s a theme or a pattern, if you like, they’re chunking it down that way.
But it’s a long process. It’s not going to happen overnight. And a good risk assessment isn’t just done once. It’s a continuous improvement. They run regularly. But I guess the next battle is, Okay, we’ve run a risk assessment, therefore, we can prove that we’re risk adverse. Well, no, because a lot of companies misconstrue the fact of assessment as intervention. When you get that information, you got to do stuff with it, right?
You have to. It’s no different than safety culture assessment. You’re assessing where you’re at to understand your themes, and then you build a strategy to execute, and then you retest. Have I made a difference?
Yeah, absolutely. And I mean, probably to soothe our listeners as well, because I’m probably making this sound very complicated. And the world of psychology is not linear. But if you’re a safety professional listening today, it really is just approaching psychosocial risk in a way that’s very, very similar to the way we’ve practiced physical safety. It is about consult. It’s about identified. It’s about analyzed. It’s about responded. It’s about a value weight. It’s about change. And then it’s about repeat. So, you really don’t have to look at psychosocial safety as a completely different construct with how we mitigate. A lot of the themes that are coming through, particularly here in Australia, is the more similar you can keep it to physical safety, you’re on your way.
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You touched on an approach around work design, and I think work design is key. You alluded to a few examples, I think, in terms of the rotation of if I’m dealing with certain critical stressors that maybe I’m rotating through it. I’m not spending the entire day dealing with it. Tell me more about what that could look like in terms of the work design, because I agree with you, work can be redesigned. We’ve proved it a few years ago when everybody went remote.
Absolutely. So, it absolutely can be done. The reason why it’s not now is because of just the perceived complexity. I mean, you and I could tease apart 50 million roles and what that looks like, but that’s not why we’re here today. It’s basically to sell the message that your people will continue to perform half mask. Your people will continue to become mentally unwell in poorly designed roles. And when I say poorly designed, at one stage, they’ll probably wonderfully design roles. But like life, everything evolves. And so, it’s about designing work that’s good for people. And like anything, you need to get in there and have a look at the way roles are done. Because at the moment, what I’m seeing, and I call it your primary, secondary, and tertiary response. And we’ve got a bunch of employers, particularly in Australia and around the world, that are investing in the tertiary stuff. In Australia, we’ve got employee assistance programs, which is, Okay, works pretty much screwed you up. You’re pretty unwell. Here’s a number that you can call and talk to a clinical psychologist and get a little bit better. And then we’re going to chuck you back into that same role and just watch you reinjure.
Also, we’re going to bring in a keynote speaker that’s going to tell you about their journey of mental health, which absolutely has a place, but it’s not fixing the direct linear causal factor of why these people are becoming unwell. And that center around how work is done. I say they’re tursury interventions. They absolutely have a place, but they’re very reactionary, where primary is about prevention, and secondary is about early intervention, and tursury is about all the pure reactionary stuff that we do to help people. But the focus shouldn’t be on fixing people. The focus should be on revaluating and redesigning the environment, so we don’t really have people to fix. It really does mean work design really needs to sit squarely in the prevention area. And that’s where we’re going to see people really start to improve in their mental health, really start to work well, hang around with your company longer. You’re going to have fewer turnover costs. You’re going to have less, I call it the HR bottleneck, where people are tired, they’re burnt out. They’re working in roles that they don’t have a say in how it’s designed. They’re overworked, they’re under work, they’re exposed to trauma.
Well, how can we get in there and fix this up a little bit? And when was the last conversation at the board level around why this is important? Because money is important, competition and growth are important. Well, you need healthy people in order to help you do that into the future. So, it’s the key to growth, is healthy people.
But it’s interesting because as you share these examples, I’m also thinking that a lot of the work that’s designed is designed by process engineers, people that are really looking at how do I optimize, which often means how do I create an assembly line that repeats, repeats, repeats, which is not necessarily good for the well-being of people. But that tends to be how work gets redesigned, or in HR functions that start looking at org structure, which again, doesn’t look at the person, it looks at how do I do this more efficiently.
Absolutely. And so that’s the new concept of work design, right? So, all of those structural and very talented people absolutely have a role in how work is done. But we need to make it almost trans disciplinary. And that is, okay, so here’s how the role can be done to its ultimate functionality. But what’s the impact on human health here? So, it really does need to be a trans disciplinary approach where you’ve got some people that are potentially upskilled in the psychosocial risk area and go, Okay, well, we can stick someone behind a conveyor belt for nine hours a day on repetition. So not only are they probably risking a repetitive strain injury, but they’re also going to become incredibly disengaged, which means they’re going to start underperforming, which means they’re going to start heading down the path of what poor mental health looks like. And I’m not necessarily diagnosing anyone because mental health is a spectrum, but everyone needs an engaged employee to make sure that their mind is well enough to continue to make good decisions. And again, that’s that direct link back to injury or poor performance, which frightens companies. So, when you’re looking at redesigning work, make sure you’ve got the right heads in the room that have a say, and not just make it about process, but make it about healthy functionality as well.
Because even if you strip back a process 20 %, which means, okay, great, we’re going to lose 20 % of our production. Well over the course of the year, your turnover rates are going to half. The employees that you do have are going to perform better, which means ultimately, what you’re designing here, you’re going to get anyway, if not double or triple that. You’re not going to be able to achieve that, what the structural engineer said, if you’re burning people out, not giving them appropriate respite, not actually giving them the value-add piece in giving them a say in how their roles are done, because you’re going to end up… We call it the financial proverbial bubble. It looks great and shiny and well designed in the beginning, but watch people drop off over time if we’re not considering human health factors in the initial stages of how we design work.
Absolutely. So, you touched on the importance of the board’s involvement in executives. Let’s double click on that one.
Yeah. Well, that’s the biggest barrier because it’s getting a bit easier in Australia because they have to do it now. It’s not just a value add. The last 18 years in the field, Eric, I call it 16 years of convincing, and now it’s law. Well, however it gets in the building, I don’t really care, to be honest, because I know that people are going to benefit from it. But boards and trusts and executives or C suite or whatever terminology you want to bring to it. Look, some of them are engaged, but even with laws here in Australia, they’re still not engaged. Really? Yeah. They find it confusing. They find it expensive. They find it disruptive. So unfortunately, just like anything, we’re going to see a couple of really big pieces of case law drop where directors are imprisoned because there’s jail time linked to poor psychosocial risk management now. We had two senior managers in Victoria, Australia, were jailed last year. So, they’re not mucking around with this stuff. But even then, getting it in front of the board and getting them to buy into this. And I know it’s incredible. It’s a lot harder in other countries where it’s not legislated.
Correct. But there are people listening in that have an interest with this then the four Cs, I call it. And that is, what’s the cost? And to sell what the cost is, well, let’s have a look at our absenteeism rates, our turnover rates, our production rates, our injury claims, if that particular scheme exists in your respective country. Let’s have a look at retraining costs, because all that is costing millions. Of course. The Gallup Institute said a burnt-out employee will actually cost the company three times their salary. That’s one burnt out human, right? So, there’s absolutely cost, whether it’s direct or indirect associated. So, if you’re able to tell that story via data, that’s really good. That’s going to appease the CFO. That’s going to appease everyone that’s just going, Okay, well, how much is going to cost and why? And why do we need to give you budget? I get a little bit cheeky here. Why do we need to pay to keep humans safe? And that just boggles my mind. But anyway, it is what it is. The second one is culture. So, we’ve got cost, we’ve got culture. So, if you’ve got a better culture, that’s just all senses of goodness, which I’ve discussed.
I won’t be repetitive, but teams are going to toxify less. People are going to have better relationships with their leaders. People are going to feel safe enough to speak up about risk early on, rather than becoming incredibly injured, and you’re either losing an employee or paying for one to get well. So, you want a really good culture. And also, as younger workforces flow into workplaces, which is unavoidable, they’re actually coming in and asking questions. They’re like, Okay, well, I’ve got three other interviews today. How is your company going to keep me psychologically safe? Because you’ve said there’s a few risks involved with this role, and I’m prepared to take those on. But what are you going to do for me? Right. How are you going to keep me safe? Because you’ve clearly outlined how you’re going to keep me physically safe. You might give me the appropriate PPE. You might give me X, Y, Z. But how are you going to keep me psychologically safe? And if employers aren’t able to answer that, they’re going to go and work for the company that can. So, there is talent acquisition, being enterprise ready, getting the right fit for the right role in the organization.
That’s really appealing to boards and executives. Then we’ve got competition, which interludes with what I just said. You want to be competitive. You need the right people in your organization to continue to keep your competitive edge. And if they’re all going to work with the other organization that does give a hoot about people’s mental health, then you’re absolutely not going to be enterprise ready for the future. You’re going to struggle. There’s a lot of evidence to say, if you don’t get behind this, you’re pretty much going to be dead in the water in 10 years. Because particularly the younger workforce… And I don’t mean to be age bias here, but younger people are getting more education around mental health and what that looks like earlier on. Eric, when you and I were at school, we didn’t talk about mental health. It didn’t exist where it’s very much on the younger workers dialect. And it’s very much not necessarily a benefit, but a right. I have a right to be safe. And so, again, competition. If you want to be competitive and keep those doors open, you need to embrace this stuff because it’s not going away.
Just because it’s not legislated doesn’t mean you don’t have to do it. Think about the longevity of your organization. And then, look, the final C word doesn’t actually apply in a lot of countries. It applies here, thank goodness, and that is compliance. Whereas I know that a lot of listeners today won’t have that card to play. But if you can get your head around the costs, the culture, and maintaining competitive in this market, then you’ve got a fairly good business case. But like anything, Eric, a lot of companies won’t do something unless they have to do it. And that’s just age-old human learning.
Isn’t it? Unfortunately, yes.
Yeah, I know. And it’s not a pleasant thing, but I’m not going to call it for anything else that it’s not. But yeah. So, if you can focus on the first three Cs, for those of you that are based in Australia, and for those that are based in Australia, you’ve definitely got the compliance card now. So, director, how about we keep you out of prison and do stuff? Which tends to work. Yeah. It tends to be a hefty stick.
Yes, absolutely. So, Anna, thank you so much for coming on the show, sharing your insights. I think it’s a critically important topic, both for safety professionals and for leaders’ organizations in general, to really start looking at psychological safety, overall mental health and well-being. As you talked about the psychosocial different concepts. I hear more and more people talking about psychological safety. Not enough on the psychosocial side of the equation. I think it’s really important to touch on those topics. If somebody wants to reach out to you to get more insights, to have you present at a conference, how can they do that?
Well, strap yourself in because I’m pretty loud and pretty proud.
Perfect. Thank you so much, Anna.
My pleasure, Eric.
Thank you for listening to the Safety Guru on C-suite Radio. Leave a legacy, distinguish yourself from the pack, grow your success. Capture the hearts and minds of your teams. Elevate your safety. Like every successful athlete, top leaders continuously invest in their safety leadership with an expert coach to boost safety performance. Begin your journey at execsafetycoach.com. Come back in two weeks for the next episode with your host, Eric Michrowski. This podcast is powered by Propulo Consulting.
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ABOUT THE GUEST
Anna Feringa is an award-winning International Speaker, Author, Trainer and Workplace Mental Health Consultant. She is a leading expert in topics including Psychosocial Health & Safety, Leadership Capability, Injury Management and best practice workplace Mental Health. As a respected member of global HSE, Anna was recently recognised as a Global Top 10 Health and Safety Influencer, 2020 and voted LinkedIn Top Voice for Workplace Mental Health in 2022.
With over 18-years’ consulting experience, Anna supports employers by helping them see that embracing Mental Health in the workplace can help prevent injury and drive a great culture. She helps Australian businesses transition from fearful and confused, to confident and responsive when faced with Mental Health challenges in the workplace.
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