Protecting employees from mental injury in the workplace

By Amy Steed
Monday, 17 September, 2018

Protecting employees from mental injury in the workplace

Work-related stress is known to have a significant impact on the mental health of workers, in some cases leading to psychological injury.

According to Safe Work Australia, workers with high job demands are particularly susceptible to poor mental health. This includes long work hours, emotional effort in responding to distressing situations or distressed or aggressive clients, and high workloads where there is too much to do.

Some industries face much higher levels of stress than others, because of the nature of the work or the conditions under which it must be performed. For instance, new research shows that the psychological stress levels of fly-in, fly-out (FIFO) workforces are alarmingly high.

Published by the Medical Journal of Australia, the research reveals that more than one-quarter of FIFO workers at remote mining and construction sites rated their psychological stress as high or very high. This was compared with just 10.8% of the general population.

Dr Jennifer Bowers and colleagues from Rural and Remote Health SA, Edith Cowan University in Perth and Orygen, the National Centre of Excellence for Youth Mental Health, administered a wellbeing and lifestyle survey at 10 mining sites in Western and South Australia, with 1124 FIFO workers completing the questionnaire.

“High psychological distress was significantly more likely in workers aged 25–34 years and workers on a two weeks on/one week off roster. Workers who were very or extremely stressed by their assigned tasks or job, their current relationship or their financial situation were significantly more likely to have high/very high Kessler Psychological Distress Scale (K10) scores than those not stressed by these factors,” the researchers wrote.

“Workers who reported stress related to stigmatisation of mental health problems were at the greatest risk of high/very high psychological distress.”

The findings of this survey have the potential to inform health and safety policy and practice more broadly, particularly given the growing awareness of the levels of mental distress and suicide rates among workers in this industry.

Technology stress

The feeling of constantly having to be switched on is also a cause of stress for many workers, across a broad range of industries. Three-quarters of workers report that they feel they can never completely shut off from work.

In addition, a workplace survey from global HR think-tank Reventure found that the number of workers who felt unable to switch off had actually increased by 27% since 2016.

Lead researcher Dr Lindsay McMillan said technology stress is becoming an increasingly common complaint that is not being addressed by employers.

“73% of workers feel like they cannot turn work off, so they are checking emails and thinking about work because they are connected to their devices,” McMillan said.

“If employers do not manage technology stress, employees will burn out and head to the exits, so it is very important for employee retention to tackle technology stress.”

What are the solutions?

Safe Work Australia has recently published a national guidance on how employers and workers can build a psychologically healthy and safe workplace. The guide aims to help users to identify, assess and control risks to mental health.

Dr Peta Miller, Special Adviser for Safe Work Australia, said that while work-related psychological injury is expensive, knowing what causes harm and taking preventative action is effective.

“Poor psychological safety costs Australian organisations $6 billion per annum in lost productivity. This is primarily because psychological injuries typically require three times more time off work than other injuries,” she said.

“Additionally, workplaces with poor psychological working conditions accrue 43% more sick days per month.”

Identifying the hazards to good mental health, assessing how severe the risks are and taking steps to eliminate and control the risks are essential steps to building a healthy and safe workplace.

“You can prevent your workers becoming ill or sustaining a psychological injury by responding to early warning signs and incidents — an increase in unplanned absence, uncharacteristic behaviour and workplace conflict are all clues that things aren’t quite right,” said Miller.

“Most importantly, workers will offer the most valuable insights — they know what causes them harm and will have ideas about how to most effectively address the dangers to their mental health. My advice is to listen to the people doing the work.”

Image credit: © Nivens

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