There is a new frontier in occupational health and safety (OH&S). It is psychological safety at work and a set of known factors that influence positive mental health and have a direct relationship with productivity, profitability, engagement, inclusion, and work-related stressors or psychosocial hazards. Very much like physical safety, the focus is on prevention, hazard, and risk management, working conditions, and safety behavior.
Although numerous factors can determine the nature and severity of outcomes of psychosocial risks, organizations have a significant role to play in eliminating hazards or minimizing risks. Both the organization and workers have a shared responsibility for maintaining and improving health, safety and well-being at work.
Kim MacDonald, the founder of 13 Factors, as well as presenter of the “Bust Work-Related Stress with Easy Team Talks” education session at CONEXPO-CON/AGG2023, reinforces and expands upon the insights featured in the popular session.
“For the past 15 years, the business world has looked at stress literacy from the perspective of the individual,” says MacDonald. “We emphasized resilience and toughness. This put the onus on the person, on that individual’s response, and their emotional and psychological make-up. We are now looking at stress literacy from both the individual and organizational perspectives, and it’s creating a much healthier, more productive workplace.”
Why the shift to include the business perspective? MacDonald says it’s simply the natural progression, the ongoing evolution of refining work environments. Key drivers are the fact that 15% of working adults suffer from a mental health issue and that poor mental health is the biggest risk factor in construction, an industry with one of the highest suicide rates. Direct business benefits include greater productivity, fewer grievances and conflicts, and higher rates of meaningful communication and discretionary effort from both individuals and teams. (Discretionary effort is doing things that benefit the organization but are not requirements or expectations outlined in a job description.)
MacDonald provides actionable tips for employers and employees that can be done to create a work environment that supports good mental health.
Tips for employers
1. Invest in your managers’ and supervisors’ growth and personal development. Provide counseling, education, and other resources. In creating a healthy work environment, it is essential that these persons lead by example and they cannot be examples unless they possess the required skills and motivation.
2. De-stigmatize mental health and addiction issues. A healthy workplace relies on open, frank communication, “and right now we’re not having these conversations,” says MacDonald. She also points out that “no one calls in sick for a mental health day, but they should recognize the need to do so and have the means of securing the time.”
3. Establish the framework for cooperative engagement. Management and employees should co-create opportunities for discussions about company beliefs and values and for the synchronous development of emotional literacy.
Tips for employees
1. Identify an accountability partner, someone with whom it is expected to have regular conversations about mental health topics. Guard against the tendency for these to turn into gripe sessions. Identify the problem then work together on healthy responses.
2. Tie these conversations to an existing habit. If you always see your accountability partner at lunch or frequently park near each other, link your discussion times to those existing habits.
3. Eventually, these discussions will become a habit. And forget that “21 days to form a habit” cliché. Habit formation takes anywhere from 18 days to a year and the average time it takes is 66 days.
Tips for both employers and employees
1. Slow down. There is time. This seems contrary to the production mindset of construction, but it’s an investment in future improvements in production. Take a look at not just the symptoms of mental health issues but also the underlying causes. “Once you see them, you can’t un-see them.” Having identified the issues, don’t stop there. “There’s already plenty of data about workplace stress,” says MacDonald. “You don’t need more information. You need more action. And remember that every organization has context and the steps taken must be tailored to your company.”
2. First, that there is a problem, even if no one has been willing to admit it or talk about it. Then believe that you can implement meaningful changes that still fit within the production mentality.
3. Acceptance of the foregoing. You do have the time to make improvements. There is an issue, whether or not it has yet been clearly defined. You can make a difference. “The result of this process is the ability to see differently and develop mental health fluency,” says MacDonald.
How good is good enough?
Managing the fundamentals of reduced stress is fairly easy. “Repetitive tasks are not good. We need variety,” says MacDonald. The amount and type of variety needed varies by person and by working conditions. Uncertainty is another stressor. Accommodating one person’s emergent needs by altering the schedule may reduce that person’s stress but increases stress for others who must pick up their slack or work extra hours to fill that position. Simply posting schedules on a reliable basis helps reduce stress.
But managing workplace stress effectively takes more than a few simple steps and doing so has not historically been part of construction culture. Where to start?
There are laws governing workplace stress, “but laws come after the fact; they are not typically proactive,” says MacDonald. “They are in response to conditions that are already causing problems. While laws must be observed, they are not especially helpful for creating a comprehensive stress management program.”
There is a guideline for managing psychosocial risks, ISO 45003:2021. It’s an excellent reference and, because it likely contains steps your organization is not already taking, provides an excellent foundation for your company’s program. Even so, says MacDonald, “Knowing that reduced stress and good mental health pay dividends for the company and its employees, do you really want to make the least necessary effort?”
If your firm is big enough to have a human resources department, task those persons with developing a program. If you don’t have an H.R. department (or even if you do), bring in a consultant, such as MacDonald’s 13 Factors. If that’s not an option, take time to do your own research. Entering the string “best ways for employers to manage workplace stress” into a search engine will yield thousands of responses. “The point is, do something,” says MacDonald. “Take action. Encourage communication. Identify issues and seek solutions.” Doing nothing does not produce any results. Doing nothing produces negative results.
A word about suicide
September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, but the risk of suicide is always with us. If you or someone you know is having problems, call or text 988 or contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.
About Kim MacDonald
With 25 years of senior management experience working within and for private companies and public institutions within 17 industry sectors, MacDonald has built a deep understanding of human and team behavior and the factors that influence people at work.
She is a Certified Psychological Health & Safety Advisor, certified in Mental Health First Aid and Applied Suicide Intervention, a workplace psychological health and safety leader in assessment and change, and a workplace investigator that helps organizations dealing with internal situations that would benefit from restorative-focused inquiries.