Does Mental Health And Safety Need A New Standard? - Next Action Associates

What happens when you hear the words ‘Health and Safety’? I’ll wager there’s maybe an involuntary eye-roll, or images in your head of jobsworth colleagues in a high-vis vest putting signs around a spillage.

Of course, we all grudgingly recognise the role that Health & Safety guidance and legislation plays in protecting us at work – there are 90% fewer fatal injuries at work since H&S legislation was introduced in 1974, and non-fatal injuries and physical ailments such a musculoskeletal disorders have fallen dramatically.

So how come the year before the COVID pandemic had the highest number of work-related sick days since 2007?

17.9 million days were lost due to work-related stress, anxiety, and depression – the highest figure to date, making up 46% of the total. Organisations have done a great job of reducing physical risks using H&S frameworks, but mental health interventions tend to be strictly remedial: resilience training; Mental Health First Aid; mindfulness; baskets of fruit. All helpful in their own way, but none capable of reducing the risks in the first place.

I like to think about it like this – if it’s your job to lift heavy things, on your first day you’re taught how to lift heavy things without injuring yourself. But if we took the same approach for physical Health and Safety as we do for mental health, we wouldn’t bother with that; instead we’d train other employees to be part-time masseurs and chiropractors to resolve the injuries caused by people lifting heavy things without proper training.

It’s a legal requirement for employers to ensure the health of their workers. The law doesn’t specify mental health as a part of this, but neither does it specify respiratory or musculoskeletal health. For the usual, complex, reasons psychological health hasn’t been generally included as a part of this, so finally, at the start of June 2020, a new International Health and Safety standard was released to provide guidance. ISO 45003 aims to do for workplace mental health what previous standards and legislation has done for physical health – improve it, by identifying and mitigating risks inherent in the workplace.

The standard is short and readable, as these sorts of things go, and encourages employers to identify risks to their employees’ mental health by looking at three areas: the design and organisation of work (e.g., job descriptions, boring or tedious tasks, use of skills, workload); social factors (reporting lines, relationships, career progression, feedback); and environment (surroundings, equipment, processes). It recommends a holistic, employee-centric approach which will genuinely enable a preventative approach to workplace wellbeing that can sit hand-in-hand with existing reactive methods.

So what does this look like in reality? Let’s take, for example, a team with poor work/life balance which is leading to burnout. The traditional reactive wellbeing approach might be some resilience training, possibly peer support in the form of Mental Health First Aid, and more recently we’ve seen organisations such as Bumble and Nike mandate week-long shutdowns. A Mental Health and Safety approach would be to combine this with a review of working practices to understand *why* the problem exists (maybe the targets are unrealistic, or perhaps the team is under-staffed, or working inefficiently), and address the problem at its root cause.

And as for the cognitive heavy lifting of your day-to-day commitments, we have the perfect straight-back-bent-knees best practice in GTD®. GTD provides a framework for many of the day-to-day stressors of work that you don’t get taught how to carry out safely on your first day (or, for many people, ever): email, calendars, meetings, planning, to-do lists. How to prioritise, how to manage distractions, how to maintain focus, how to have the proper perspective.

Stress-free productivity shouldn’t be a nice-to-have aspiration — it’s the basic skillset for the psychologically healthy, high-performing organisation of the future.

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