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Mind Matters: The Crucial Link Between Mental Health, Psychosocial Risks, and Workplace Safety with Anna Feringa

Mind Matters: The Crucial Link Between Mental Health, Psychosocial Risks, and Workplace Safety

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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.

Yes.

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.

This episode of the Safety Guru podcast is brought to you by Propulo Consulting, the leading safety and safety culture advisory firm. Whether you are looking to assess your safety culture, develop strategies to level up your safety performance, introduce human performance capabilities, re-energize your BBS program, enhance supervisory safety capabilities, or introduce unique safety leadership training and talent solutions, Propulo has you covered. Visit us at propulo.com.

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.

For more information: www.annaferinga.com.au or https://www.linkedin.com/in/annaferinga/.

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Mental Health in the Workplace Post COVID-19: Impacts on Safety with Dr. Madison Hanscom

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Dr. Madison Hanscom shares some alarming recent research on Mental Health in the Workplace through the current COVID-19 context. She touches on the impacts on Worker Safety and provides some tangible strategies that organizations can implement to support in difficult and challenging times. This is such a critical topic that is too often missing from the Safety and Executive dialogue. This episode of the Safety Guru also touches on individual strategies that can help leaders and listeners in addition to the broader organizational context. Listen in!

READ THIS EPISODE

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 The Safety Guru public speaker and author. Are you ready to leave a safety legacy? Your legacy success story begins now.

Hi, I’m Eric Michrowski and welcome to The Safety Guru today. I’m very excited to have Dr. Madison Hanscom with us, who’s going to talk to us about a really important topic in these critical times where we’re starting to emerge from the current covid-19 Black Swan event. A topic we want to talk about is around mental health and mental health in the workplace, particularly in this new context that we’re in medicine. Thank you so much for joining us. I’d love to hear a little bit about how you got into work on safety.

What’s passionate about the topic for you.

Yeah, thanks for having me, Eric. I yeah, I first got into worker safety in graduate school. I did my Ph.D. in psychology that stands for industrial and organizational psychology, which is a study of human behavior and psychology in the workplace. And while I was in grad school, I was offered to complete a concentration in occupational health psychology. And so, I did this and I was a trainee with the math, which is the Mountains and Plains Research Center, which is a NILESH funded research center. And it was history ever since they taught me so much about worker health, worker safety and all the evidence-based approaches behind making the workplace safer for everyone. And that if that’s my passion right there, making the workplace better, improving the workplace for everyone, that’s excellent.

So, what’s the current state when it comes to mental health, particularly in light of all the recent events?

So, well, studies and polls are coming out showing that we have more mental health issues in 20, 20 than in previous years, people are experiencing a lot of emotional distress. There’s a study that came out recently showing that compared to twenty eighteen, those sampled this year in twenty were eight times more likely to fit the criteria for serious mental illness. And it also showed that some groups are struggling more than others. So, in that twenty eighteen survey, only four percent of individuals between the ages of 18 and 29 reported serious mental distress, whereas in twenty-eight the same group was much higher.

It was at 38 percent, pretty bad. And this is also similar for people in their 30s and early 40s, too. But those differences were just a tiny, less tiny, bit less different. But so that group 18 to 29 is really standing out. And it’s especially true for those who have younger kids at home. So, they passed out the sample to look at those with kids and those without. And there’s another gap there as well. So other polls are showing really big numbers to those.

A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll showing that fifty six percent of US adults reported that stress related to the covid outbreak has caused them to experience negative that negative effects on their well-being and mental health. So, this is like issues sleeping, increased alcohol abuse, worsening chronic conditions. And these numbers are worse for frontline workers and their families, as well as those who have experienced some type of income loss. So, it’s really kind of looking at those groups who are suffering frontline workers, those with income loss and those who are just trying to juggle everything and have kids at home.

Wow. That’s really horrible, horrible news to hear in this context, because there’s just layering all sorts of different complexities into the workplace, into people’s overall well-being through this pretty significant crisis. So clearly, we have a problem. What does it mean for workplace workplaces and for safety specifically?

Yeah, so it definitely spills over. Right, so when people are experiencing stress at home or experiencing stress at work, there’s an opportunity for it to kind of spill into the over into the other domain. I mean, like when you have this full bucket and one, it just has to go somewhere. So, for one prolonged stress alone, it’s highly related to other issues down the road, like cardiovascular disease or obesity, sleep problems, concentration impairment, things like that.

So clearly, these things are all influencing occupational safety and worker’s comp claims, especially those things like sleep and memory impairment. They’re highly related to safety incidents. And we all know when your minds on the job, this can lead to safety issues. So, of course, it’s good to consider ways you can support employees during this time. It’s the right thing to do and it’s also a good business decision.

I completely agree with you. And we have to really also remember how much people have on their shoulders right now and how it can influence their minds at work, particularly when it comes to the impact on focus. When it comes to safety, I would imagine this has a significant impact. So now let’s shift to people who are working remotely, working from home. One thing that I keep wondering is why there are more mental health issues with so many people are teleworking, which we hear makes them happier.

Yeah, so it seems kind of contradictory, right, so you’re right on both accounts, fretwork does make people pretty happy, though, to contrast that many people are not doing their best right now in terms of mental health. So, I don’t have the perfect answer to that question, of course, because people are still kind of collecting data and really understanding what’s happening this year. But what I would imagine a huge variable, what the circumstances are that when people are working from home right now, the conditions are not ideal.

I’ve spoken with a great number of individuals working from home with their kids, for instance, and it’s just totally not a normal situation. Typically, when people are working from home, they would only be working. They’re not also focusing on home schooling. Their kids are stressing out about their husband who lost his job and covid, or stressing out about getting sick or not having paper or wondering if their jobs are going to be there tomorrow and things like that.

So, the uncertainty around everything is just not helpful.

And I would say even from some of the people I’ve spoken to, not everybody has a proper working environment for work. I mean, I spoke to some people that were in the midst of renovations as it started. So, they didn’t even have our house or a kitchen, others who never really worked from home. So, they never had a proper desk. So, they’re working off the kitchen table or off a sofa. So, ergonomics is bad. But I’m sure there’s also a lot of stresses at home as well.

I’ve been hearing stories just like that. Yeah, it’s difficult just to completely transition without warning and all of a sudden, your whole work life looks completely different.

Absolutely. Because when I first started doing remote work, it was an intentional choice. Right. So, I’d invested in the right that’s the right ergonomic setups, the right environment. So even the choice of House was conducive to do this type of work. I’m sure that isolation also is not helping. Can you maybe double click on this a little bit as well?

Oh, exactly. Studies have shown that remote work can lead to perceptions of professional isolation and loneliness in general for some people. And right now, with social distancing, it’s completely amplified. So, yeah, I would say that’s a huge factor contributing to all of this distress as well. People are really social animals. We need each other. We need to be surrounded by other people. And the fact that so many individuals who are used to being surrounded by other people at work every day are now sent home and they’re sent to work from home.

But then on top of that, they can’t hang out with their family and friends as much as usual because of the whole pandemic situation. So, it’s been really hard on people, I’m sure.

And some of the coping mechanisms that people had with challenges they had in their personal lives as well before are not as easily accessible as well. So, I’m completely convinced. Absolutely. Mental health is a critical point right now, a critical point of discussion that organizations need to have internally. Also know it’s a good business decision to be concerned about the well-being of your employees. I’ve alluded to it before in terms of the impact of mental health, in terms of ability to focus on the job at hand, which is then also going to keep you safe or not safe.

Right. Because if you’re not able to have all you focus on the work in front of you, you’re more likely to get injured and it can be a split-second decision. Let’s think a little bit about what leaders can do for their employees. Can you share maybe some thoughts on that?

Yeah, great, so if you’re a leader or any type of supervisory position are definitely things you should think about. I love the analogy that we wear personal protective equipment to deal with physical hazards. But right now, we also need to be thinking about mental acuity. So, we need to be dealing with invisible hazards we can’t see. And first and foremost, as a leader, it’s so important to prioritize your own mental health, so similar to how you put on your oxygen mask before helping others on an airplane.

You should take care of your mental health in order to best help others, because if you are struggling psychologically, it’s likely you’re not as effective as a leader. You might be struggling, being perceptive or empathetic towards your own employees. So, you have to make sure that you’re doing OK first. And this really pays off because, you know, and Eric, when we talk about good leadership, something we talk about so often is role modeling. So, when you’re acting is a role model for good mental health practices.

This goes a long way because it signals to employees what’s important and what they should care about. And it also helps to break down the stigma, which is actually the next one I would want to touch on is removing the stigma around mental health as much as possible. And it can be tough. But, you know, it’s all about letting your employees know that it’s accepted and it’s encouraged to discuss and prioritize your mental health. One way you can encourage them to think about their own mental health is to let them know you take care of yours, too.

So, you know, connecting with them with the resources to can be a good way to touch base about it. Something else I would recommend is to build a culture that supports recovery. Recovery and downtime are really important for happy and productive workers. And you can take this kind of a step further by thinking about it. What are you doing to build that climate around recovery? So, for example, there’s an APA study showing that companies that encourage people to take their vacation, their vacation time and to disconnect during that time have employees who come back feeling much more motivated, more productive than companies who are not really encouraging, or those companies that kind of make employees feel guilty about taking time off.

And the next thing I would suggest, considering is offering a lot of empathy and active care at work. People really like it when you take a genuine interest in them. Remember to check in with your employees regularly about their life outside of work and try to track their experiences so you can kind of celebrate victories with them or grieve losses. Something I really like to remember is let’s say you have an employee who has a mom in the hospital or somebody who has something really exciting with maybe give have a child graduating.

It’s really easy just to set a calendar reminder for that or to have like a little journal where you jot those things down and then you can know when to reach out to someone to circle back around and things like that being there. Yeah. And the next thing is making sure you offer as much schedule flexibility as you can. And I totally understand this is not applicable to all jobs, but, if possible, try and structure work and deliverables to accommodate the possibility that life might interfere with work, especially right now.

Everybody needs something different. Some are caring for young kids. Some are caring for old parents. Some just want their normal schedule back. So as much as possible, just giving people flexibility and control over how their work is done is going to really help people balance everything. And I know have gone on for a long time. But I guess the last thing I’ll mention here is something really useful for those working remotely now is understanding boundary management. So, this is all just about checking in with your employees so you can help them build a schedule and an environment that supports the work for them to feel productive, refreshed, happy, all those things and let them know that it’s all right if their preferences are kind of different from your own.

For instance, if you like to send emails at 10 p.m., but this is out of normal work hours for your company, reassure them that there’s no need to respond to the next day, that you just like checking in on the evening, because the whole idea here is to reassure people that they’re not on the hook for a twenty-four-hour workday when they’re working from home because we’re all human and we need to rest.

Great, great points and potentially even possessing a delayed send, which I’m not necessarily notoriously good at doing, but you can now schedule that your email to go at a later time. So those are great tips for leaders. What if somebody isn’t a leader and they’re curious about things that they can do for themselves or potentially even a loved one?

Yeah, yeah, so that’s a good one and I’ll start with an interesting one, which is stick it out in nature more because more and more research is coming out to support the fact that nature is really good for us. Something as simple as going for a walk is really good for stress relief. And spending time outside improves our ability to focus and is really good for our physical health, too. So, if you live somewhere where it’s safe and easy to go out on a walk, maybe without running into huge groups of people, I would go ahead and get out there.

And let’s say that’s not an option for you or you’re not comfortable doing that. Maybe try bringing nature into your living space. So, research also shows that moving light patterns like, you know, when the sun comes in through your window, through a through tree branches and stuff like that, or it’s really calling to our heart rate, keeps us focused. Maybe hang out on your porch more often or closer to windows, open the windows, things like that.

It can really kind of light in your day and help to regain your focus there. And I know a lot of people are trying to reconnect, reconnect with nature right now.

Right. I can imagine. I remember reading specifically, even within nature. There was something about walking in a forest that was even more impactful and I can’t remember what it was, but that between walking nature by a lake as an example versus Infowars, that apparently there is something about trees and the smell of the forest that was even better, also helpful for from a creativity standpoint that shows up in a lot of the creativity, creativity, literature as well. 

Yeah. And then the less manmade stuff you can be around, the better. So that makes perfect sense. And yeah. So, the next thing you can do for yourself is to limit screen time. So that’s also related to nature and kind of to limit news intake. And I mean, this kind of speaks for itself. Spending too much time engaging in media coverage through polarizing stories. You can kind of just be a stressor on its own. And.

Shifting to another concept here is remembering to support one another, so of course, this is really fundamental to mental health, but it’s all about reaching out and checking in with your coworkers, ask them about how they are doing outside of work and make this a regular habit, not just a onetime thing that you do or a onetime reference you. Yeah, you really need to think about the nuances associated with your culture to say, are you working in a Macho or kind of a male dominated culture? And I say this because there are certain industries like this where people suffer silently more often. And we know suicide rates are high for industries that are dominated by men like construction. So, it’s important that you kind of reach out and check in with how your coworkers are doing, because you might make a huge difference in someone’s life by doing that.

Great point. I remember construction came up, firemen, police officers, all professions where there’s a much, much higher suicide rate. And it reminds me of a bit of a theme in Austria. They did some really good campaigns around this topic and it was introducing a simple word, which was, are you OK in introducing the common language within organizations to encourage check in at key points throughout the day and over a period of time, just really reinforcing that?

Yeah, I think that’s really related because along similar lines, you shouldn’t suffer silently either. If you were having a difficult time, speak up and ask for support or help or try advocating for yourself independently. That makes more sense in your scenario by maybe speaking out some resources like therapy or someone you trust. And too many people suffer silently and really wish that they’d done something sooner. So, I can just really make or break your experience. And finally, I save this one for last because it’s extremely important.

 

Yeah, it seems really obvious to people and it’s to focus on health care. So, you know, even though it’s obvious it’s the first thing to slip through the cracks when things get stressful. But so much research supports the fact that a good routine, eating well, sleeping eight hours a night can hugely impact your success and your mental health. So, yeah, even though you’re probably rolling your eyes at this obvious one, I have to put it in here because it’s such a good reminder that so many of us need, especially because if we fall off the wagon, things just get really hard.

Thank you. That’s really good feedback, really good recommendations and ideas for everyone. So, what if somebody is wanted to seek some therapy, some support, but isn’t comfortable leaving the home, given everything that’s happening? Any thoughts about virtual therapy around this?

Yeah, that’s a great, great thought. So, telehealth has definitely shown to be effective and people should look into that if they think it would be helpful for their stress or their anxiety or anything going on right now. And one example of a company doing telehealth well right now is better help. And it’s worked well for a lot of people.

Accent is definitely a much better idea to seek out now and do it remotely rather than putting it off. I’d like to wrap up our conversation by talking about burnout. It comes up often in conversations. I recently had a question from a webinar attendee who’s worried about burnout on her team. She said she supervises a team that has intense workload right now because of covid-19 changes, and she’s getting word about burnout. It’s clear her team members are feeling overwhelmed, like there isn’t an end in sight.

What would you tell her?

Yeah, it’s definitely a hot topic right now, and her concerns are a good one, especially because if it’s true that her team is feeling burned out, there’s a lot of long-term negative consequences because burnout is deep, it’s pervasive. It comes after a lot of prolonged stress and it really affects job performance and affects everything down to the bottom line in the company. So, thinking about productivity is a smart idea. And to start the tips that I kind of discussed for leaders, for individuals are all good for burnout.

So, I would think about those. But I would also think specifically about the stressors and your specific work environment and what you can do to build resources to meet the demands. This will really depend on the job and the nature of the work. But an example of this might be to think about how things have changed lately in terms of workload. So, let’s say your team is used to producing 15 reports a week, but now it’s up to 20.

It might be a good idea to introduce some type of resource for this new demand, like it might be adding another employee to the team to distribute the load, maybe hire an intern or build more flexible deadlines or just something else that will help to reduce the stress. Because if things are changing and they’re not going away, there has to be something in place to help to adapt to that. And along similar lines, when things get really overwhelming, like there isn’t an end in sight.

It reminds me of some research that’s been done showing that when people feel underwater, it works really well when we give them bite sized bowls or small wins, because when you’re drowning in a ton of long-term uncertainty, it’s so easy to lose sight of goals. And psychologically, we love my goals to keep us motivated. They keep us engaged. So even though there might be long term goals associated with getting the company recovered or whatever, it might be used to break these down as much as possible.

It helps people connect what they’re doing every day to something bigger, to the bigger picture. And so, some people have done this with white boards, like in hospitals, like with daily wins and progress charts and things like that. But this can also be done virtually, too, if your team is remote right now as well. So just something to think about, like really breaking things up as much as possible.

That’s phenomenal. Just if I may, unless I have two other tiny questions, which I’m hoping you might be able to expand on a little bit at first. One is I’m wondering if you noticed this, somebody around you. So, you talked a little bit about what can I do as a leader? What can I do if I think I want to seek some help? What should you do if you see somebody around you that seems to be exhibiting signs?

What should be your role? Should you reach up to somebody? Should you have a conversation with them? I know you’re not a clinical psychologist, but that’s a topic that’s come up a few times in conversations with people in terms of if I notice something that seems off, somebody is not acting like they normally do, what should I do?

Yeah, I think I think it’ll of course, it’ll kind of depend on the nature of the relationship that you have with this person. But, you know, if you feel close enough to this individual, I would recommend going and talking to them first yourself, because you don’t want to put them on blast in any way and you don’t want to talk to their supervisor or kind of go around them in any way. I would just approach them really kind of on a friendly level.

You don’t even have to approach him as a coworker. And maybe if they don’t open up immediately, just give them just let them know that you’re there to talk. And I know every situation is going to be different, but just being there for someone can really go a long way.

So even just checking and saying, are you OK? How are you feeling? I notice you seem more tired or more whatever the symptom might be. Would that be a good approach?

Yeah, I think it would, yeah.

Lastly, at the front end, you talked a little bit about some demographics that were hit harder. So specifically, those, I believe, under the age of twenty-nine, as well as kind of more front-line workers. Any thoughts around intervention approaches or would you keep it agnostic of that? Because it seems like there’s definitely a bigger impact on within certain population groups. And I’m wondering if there’s any research that shows the why behind it or even if there’s a different tactic around those groups.

Yeah, and I think a big reason why these groups are struggling so much when you look at these different surveys, when you’re looking at this data, is because of those factors such as job loss, younger people are more likely to use or lose their jobs right now. They are more likely to have children at home or younger children. Having older children at home is not as stressful. So, I think I think thinking about things like that and, you know, my default is whenever you’re going to offer resources or you’re going to offer interventions, my default is to make it equally accessible for all employees because you never know who is going to want it and you never know who’s going to benefit from it.

So, it’s a good idea to make it accessible for everyone. But if you are going to kind of target interventions for certain people or reach out to see if anybody needs support, you know, the numbers show those groups definitely could use that support.

Interesting. Well, thank you very much for your time and for sharing some great ideas, this is such an important topic that is not getting as much attention as it should. And there’s so much that leader can do. Those resources you can draw from. You’ve talked about a few of them, a lot of employee assistance programs within organizations also have some support resources and sometimes some webinars or speakers that can come speak to the organization. So many resources out there, but thank you so much for talking about such an important topic.

Thanks for having me.

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 team’s. Fuel your future. Come back in two weeks for the next episode or listen to our sister show with the Ops guru Eric Michrowski.

For more on Workplace Mental Health and Safety: https://www.propulo.com/blog/category/safety/mental-health/

Please join our upcoming Webinar: Stress, burnout and loneliness with Dr Madison Hanscom on Jul 16, 2020 12:00 PM EDT at:

2020 has been a difficult year, and the impact is reflected in the recent increase of mental health issues. The implications are widespread — mental wellbeing is a critical business success factor.

Join Madison Hanscom (PhD, Chief Science Officer) with host Eric Michrowski (CEO, Leader, Public Speaker, and Podcast Host) for a webinar to discuss the issues and resolutions. We will explore the impact of stress, burnout, and loneliness on your employees and company. Strategies to prevent and cope with stress, burnout, and loneliness during these challenging times will be offered.

https://attendee.gotowebinar.com/register/4748711963347660045

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ABOUT THE GUEST

Madison uses her expertise in organizational science to diagnose problems and build solutions. With years of experience in applied research, Madison uses her knowledge in statistics and research methods to design and administer assessments in the areas of safety culture and operational excellence. Madison enjoys translating data for practical use and working with clients to create better workplaces. In her role, Madison manages the Science Team, Propulo’s division for academic and research partnerships. Madison and the Science Team ensure the practices and products at Propulo are evidence-based by translating empirical research into practical application. 

Prior to joining Propulo, Madison has received several awards for applied research, and her research programs have been funded by NIOSH. She has authored publications focused on best practices for performance appraisal and performance management, occupational safety, aging and diversity at work, and more. Madison has also worked on multidisciplinary teams to diagnose problems and produce transformative organizational solutions in the areas of safety culture, psychometrics, leadership, employee motivation and engagement, and more in a variety of industries.

Madison holds a Ph.D. and M.S. in Industrial and Organizational Psychology with an emphasis in Occupational Health Psychology from Colorado State University.

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