FAQ: Psychologically Healthy Workplaces

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What do we mean when we talk about a psychologically healthy and safe workplace?

A psychologically healthy and safe workplace is one that promotes employees’ psychological well-being and actively works to prevent harm to employee psychological health.

While some organizations are working to implement a specific Psychological Health and Safety Management System based on the National Standard of Canada on Psychological Health and Safety (CSA Z1003), you don’t need a separate, formal management system in place to start improving the psychological health and safety for your employees in your workplace. If you are already working on improving your safety culture, reducing work-related injuries, supporting the recovery of injured workers with your stay-at-work/return-to-work program, and involving workers in continuous improvement initiatives, you are likely already doing much of what is needed for a psychologically healthy and safe workplace. 

Why should our organization make psychological health and safety a priority?

For many years, the focus of occupational health and safety programs has been to prevent physical injuries and illnesses that result from exposures in the workplace. By preventing these injuries, organizations have been able to reduce cost, retain staff, and improve productivity.

*Guarding Minds @ Work/www.workplacestrategiesformentalhealth.com Source: Guarding Minds at Work. Gilbert, Bilsker & Samra, 2018.

In recent years we have come to realize that that while many companies were taking steps to control physical hazards, they were not considering how organizational factors can negatively affect the psychological health and safety of their workers. 

These organizational factors can lead to psychological distress, low job satisfaction, poor employee engagement, absenteeism, increased risk of disease, increased reporting of work related injuries/illnesses, longer periods of time loss due to injury/illness, less successful stay-at-work/return-to-work programs, conflict between co-workers and/or their managers, and significantly higher operational costs.

A psychologically healthy and safe workplace can help your organization successfully manage human resources and contribute to the financial success and resilience of your business. It is important to understand that psychological health and safety is really about how you work with, support and engage people to help your business succeed. It should be seen as an integral part of all your operations, from hiring to training and from managing performance to managing change.

What are some of the real impacts on workers working in a workplace that isn't psychologically healthy or safe?

Research tells us that employees who experience high stress and low job satisfaction often perceive the workplace as unfair or unsupportive, and have increased rates of negative health and job performance consequences, such as:

Negative Health Consequences   Negative Job Performance
• 3 times the incidence of cardiac problems 
• 3 times the incidence of back pain
• 5 times the incidence of certain types of cancer
• 2 – 3 times the incidence of mental illness
• 2 – 3 times the incidence of conflicts
• 2 – 3 times the incidence of infections
• 2 – 3 times the incidence of substance abuse
• 2 – 3 times the incidence of injuries
• Reduced ability to adapt to unexpected work demands
• Reduced ability to cope with organizational or job change
• Impaired ability to learn new methods, processes, techniques
• Impaired memory
• Increased feelings of helplessness
• Increased aggression and conflict or passivity
• Decreased ability to meet regular job demands

What else can we do to create a psychologically healthy and safe workplace?

As noted above, if you are already working improving your health and safety performance and reducing the number of work-related injuries reported by your workers, then this is a great time to look at how you can protect both the physical and psychological health and safety of your workers.  

For instance, when workers know that they will be listened to and supported when they bring forward health and safety concerns, and that these concerns will be acted upon, they are much more likely to feel that they are trusted and are able to influence positive change in the workplace. Trust and involvement / influence are both key elements of a psychologically healthy and safe workplace . Similarly, workers are more likely to feel trusted and respected if supervisors and managers are supportive and show empathy when a worker reports a work-related injury or illness.

In most cases, it’s not necessary to create a psychologically healthy and safe workplace from scratch. If you prioritize trust and openness between workers on all safety issues, you’re already poised to lead a psychologically healthy and safe workplace.

What are some indicators of a psychologically unhealthy and/or unsafe work environment?

Lots of things can indicate that your workplace is not psychologically healthy and safe. Some common indicators include:

  • frequent reports of workplace conflict
  • low levels of job satisfaction
  • high number of requests for early retirement, transfers, or resignations
  • workplace injuries / illnesses
  • difficulties returning injured/ill workers back to work (longer durations of absences from work)
  • disability claims, including those attributed to “stress”, mental distress, or diagnosed psychological illnesses/ injuries
  • poor levels of employee engagement
  • quality / human errors issues
  • low productivity / frequently missed timelines or sales targets
  • complaints from customers
  • poor outcomes for clients

*Total claim costs as of April 9, 2015 (Data from WCB Nova Scotia)

Will the process of creating a psychologically healthy and safe workplace cause new problems or make things worse?

Not if you are sincere in your desire to improve the psychological health and safety of your workers. 

Denying the link between organizational practices and workplace health and safety only leads to higher costs and lower profits for any business.

Taking action to address workplace practices and policies, while changing beliefs and attitudes, will benefit all those who work in your organization. Ignoring these things will likely, sooner or later, lead to a crisis.

When employees see real, concrete steps being taken to improve the psychological health and safety of their workplace, it is unlikely that things will get worse than they already may be. Granted, you may identify issues or problems that you didn’t know about, but this is a good thing, as it will allow you to take action and put into place controls to address them.

By understanding what a psychologically healthy and safe workplace is, assessing the current state of your workplace, and taking action to improve the psychological health and safety of your workers, you can help ensure that your organization’s practices are designed to prevent negative situations in the future. 

Will creating a psychologically healthy and safe workplace mean extra work and stress for managers?

Some managers may worry that a psychologically healthy and safe workplace will mean more work and more stress for them.  Some may also think that the blame will be placed on individual managers.  Creating a psychologically healthy and safe workplace needs to be an organizational wide strategy that all employees play a role in. Managers and supervisors do have a very important role to play since it is their job to coach, support and manage their staff so that organizational performance goals are met. For these individuals, there will likely be some increase in workload as the move to a psychologically healthy and safe workplace takes place. Everyone who is part of the formal management team for an organization will likely need to take training to learn about how management styles can support or hinder a psychologically healthy and safe workplace. They will need to understand how to address a wide range of issues that impact psychological health and safety. And they may encounter challenges and stress if their personal attitudes or management styles are in conflict with the best evidence approaches for creating a psychologically healthy and safe workplace. Managing workers can be challenging, especially in times of emotional distress or conflict. A psychologically healthy and safe workplace helps to ensure that the systems, policies, procedures, training and support are in place to address these types of challenges. 

Employee well-being is fine, but what about the bottom line? Is a psychologically healthy and safe workplace good for business?

Yes. There is very strong evidence that organizations that pay attention to psychologically healthy and safe workplaces are more productive, have higher profits, have better reputations and have healthier, more engaged employees. Studies indicate that organizations that implement evidence-based psychological health and safety strategies perform better in all key performance categories, from health and safety to key human resource indicators to shareholder returns. 

Workplaces with a positive approach to psychological health and safety are better able to recruit and retain talented workers, have improved worker engagement, enhanced productivity, are more creative and innovative, and have higher profit levels. Other positive effects can include a reduction of several key workplace issues including grievances, turnover, disability, injury rates, absenteeism, morale problems, and the potential for workplace conflict.

*Guarding Minds @ Work/www.workplacestrategiesformentalhealth.com Source: Guarding Minds at Work. Gilbert, Bilsker & Samra, 2018.

Is a psychologically healthy and safe workplace really all about worker mental illness?

No, the focus of a psychologically healthy and safe workplace isn’t all on worker mental health or illness. But since a psychologically healthy and safe workplace will consider the impact of workplace processes, policies, and interactions on the psychological health and safety of all workers, any psychologically healthy and safe workplace strategy must include a component to increase every worker’s understanding of mental health and support for workers with mental illness.

Strategies for a psychologically healthy and safe workplace should include education and training to help mangers and staff better understand the issues associated with mental health, the mental health continuum, the impact of stigma, and what can and should be done to support those with mental distress and illness.

Since one out of every 5 workers, or more, will have some type of mental health illness, such as depression or anxiety, it is important that your psychologically healthy and safe workplace  be designed to support and help these workers.  It is also important to understand that a psychologically healthy and safe workplace can help prevent people in distress from moving into a state of illness. 

Your psychologically healthy and safe workplace should not, in any way, be designed to focus on any individual worker. Instead, its goal is to consider organizational approaches, strategies, policies, procedures, and interactions that might affect the psychological health or safety of any worker. Every organization is unique, and the approach to establishing, documenting, and maintaining a psychologically healthy and safe workplace will need to respect the unique culture and resources of each organization.

Does this mean that our managers must take sole responsibility for the psychological health of all workers?

No. Like occupational health and safety, everyone in a workplace has a role to play in creating and supporting a psychologically healthy and safe workplace.  And like OH&S, your managers have an important role in helping workers to identify, assess and control hazards that can impact their health and safety, physical health and safety and psychological health and safety.

Engaging workers, listening to workers, trusting workers and supporting them in the process of hazard identification, assessment and control is just as important for a psychologically healthy and safe workplace as it is for traditional health and safety.  Managers, obviously, have role in all of these areas.  They also have a role to play when it comes to enforcing policies that are put into place to protect the psychological health and safety of workers. This may mean coaching a worker who is not following your respectful workplace policy, or ensuring that appropriate return to work plans are in place for those returning to work after being off due to a mental illness.

While the role of managers is important, the responsibility of a worker’s psychological health and safety, or for creating a psychologically healthy and safe workplace, isn’t all on their shoulders. Individual workers must take responsibility for their own psychological health and safety, and also in the psychological health and safety of their co-workers.  CEOs, VPs and Directors need to understand their responsibilities when it comes to supporting, promoting, auditing and actively participating in policies and activities to help create a psychologically healthy and safe workplace.