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



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!


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:

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.

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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.