When you think of workplace safety, some of the more prominent topics that come to mind are probably PPE, machine guarding, hazard communication, and similar ideas. What may not come to mind, though, is mental health. It’s a great time to raise awareness about mental health in relation to workplace safety because October actually hosts Mental Illness Awareness Week.
Holly Cundiff is the Forensic and Special Projects Coordinator for the Lorain County Board of Mental Health in Ohio. She has worked in the mental health field for more than 25 years, and she understands the difficulty of talking about mental health due to the stigma and misunderstanding.
Holly tries to educate the public on just how common mental illness is:
“So that’s one in four adults, one in five children, who were diagnosed with any mental illness within one year’s time,” she said. “I really want people to understand that it’s actually more common than diabetes and that this is a medical problem… that this is a treatable illness and people can recover and get well.” That’s why it's important for employers to develop a culture where it's okay for those needing help to be able to do so without fear of being labeled, isolated, scrutinized more closely or ultimately losing their job.
There’s still a lot of stigma around mental illness that prevents people from speaking up and finding care, so untreated mental health issues can become a major concern in the workplace.
What kinds of safety concerns are related to mental illness?
There are a few good reasons why you should care about your employees’ mental health as it relates to their jobs. The first is that everyone in the workplace should always be mentally prepared when they clock in. One of the biggest causes of accidents is lack of awareness or attention. If an employee’s head isn’t in the right place, there’s a ton of room for disaster. If safety in the workplace is a priority, then being informed about mental health is one of the areas that need to be addressed—sometimes difficulty concentrating and fatigue may be related to mental health issues.
Another reason is that productivity typically goes way down when mental illnesses are causing problems. When one employee is falling behind, typically the others pick up the slack. This can lead to your other employees being overworked, rushed, and maybe a little bit frustrated. Fatigue, exhaustion, and rushing all limit employee performance and cause safety hazards for everyone in the workplace.
What are some of the signs of mental health issues?
Mental illness covers such a broad range of problems that it’s difficult to give just a few general tips. According to Holly, these are some of the signs you should watch out for in order to identify and help employees that could potentially be having mental health issues:
Difficulty thinking or concentrating
Grandiose plans without seeing them through
Mood fluctuations like extreme sadness
Calling off work often
Not eating or constantly eating
Lack of sleep
Delusions or hallucinations
If you observe these signs, you can reach out to the employee displaying them to first discuss what is happening. Obviously many of these symptoms can be displayed for reasons unrelated to a mental health issue. For example, this may be the case for a parent of a young child without many family and social supports that frequently appears tired, states they have not been sleeping well, are more irritable and has trouble concentrating. In either case you want to help alleviate the symptoms of mental illness in the workplace, keeping everyone safer and more productive on the job.
What are some ways to respond?
The first step to addressing mental health issues is to observe. Mental illness affects everyone differently, so it’s important to witness what the problem is exactly.
“I think everyone in the workplace can help each other by recognizing signs and symptoms of mental illness and encouraging people to get the help they need,” said Holly.
Once you’ve witnessed the negative effects of mental illness in the workplace, you can reach out the employee and offer to help find a solution. Where you find help depends on the situation. If it’s a crisis and the employee is in need of immediate attention, contacting a crisis hotline or local emergency services is the best option. If the situation is not an immediate emergency—maybe they just need to talk to someone—your local EAP (Employee Assistance Program) office or a mental health care navigator can help to send employees in the right direction.
It’s crucial that you educate employees and management alike on mental health issues so that it does not become a recurring problem within the workplace. Some situations need to be handled delicately, and a lack of understanding is unhelpful in these situations. The health and safety of every single employee is a priority, whether it’s physical or mental.