Psychological health and safety as a day-to-day practice

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Regardless of their role in an organization, everyone has a story about a workplace where they felt good and that built their confidence or where their confidence was undermined and they felt miserable. These experiences leave a lasting impression and it doesn’t take much for them to resurface in conversations about workplace psychological health and safety.

This impact on employees also leaves a mark on organizational performance and potential. When a workplace doesn’t provide a psychologically healthy and safe work environment, the organization pays a very real price, including lost productivity, low morale, turn over and increased disability claims.

Still, few organizations have implemented formal strategies to transform their organization and address work-related psychological health issues. Acknowledging the importance of mental health is often limited to providing individuals access to resources like EAP so they can fix themselves.

In 2013, the Mental Health Commission of Canada, together with the Canadian Standard Association, introduced the National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety (PH&S). The Standard for PH&S brings great value and guidance to move mental health best practices forward in the workplace. It presents:

  • A “how to guide”: The Standard consists of a comprehensive guide to build infrastructure and corporate culture that will foster and sustain psychological health and safety over time.
  • A significant shift in thinking about mental health in the workplace: The Standard brings three important insights forward:
    • Features of the workplace can be the root cause of poor psychological health of employees.
    • Employers should address the potential workplace related root causes for poor psychological health in the same way they treat potential workplace related physical harm – by mitigating or eliminating the workplace risks.
    • Psychological/mental health is more than the absence of a diagnosed mental health disorder.
  • An overview of measurable and modifiable characteristics of psychological health and safety: The Standard identifies 13 well researched features that are the foundation and reflection of a psychologically healthy and safe workplace. These features cover how people treat each other, as well as the relationship between the employee and their work tasks, their relationship with the company and with the company mandate.

Awareness of the Standard for PH&S has been growing, as well as social awareness of workplace mental health. Implementation of the Standard from start to finish is the ideal scenario, but requires a top-down commitment. The complexity and investment of time and funds present a challenge for many organizations.

Building psychological health & safety from the ground up

But organizations don't need to sit back and wait for leadership to act, like a fairy tale princess waiting for her wake-up kiss. Another entry point into making conscious change comes from the profile of the 13 characteristics of psychological health and safety. These factors provide an opportunity to identify strengths and challenges and to start making behavioural changes from the bottom up. Small changes have a ripple effect and can eventually help demonstrate the business case for formal structural changes.

The characteristics of psychological health and safety also allow for a flexible application to reflect unique stressors and needs depending on employee demographics, type of industry, etc. The work-related stressors for employees in  nonprofit organizations are potentially very different from the stressors in other industries, such as retail, manufacturing or mining. Similarly, the psychological health and safety stressors, needs and solutions may differ depending on the demographics of the workforce: is the workforce primarily male or female? young or more mature? more diverse or homogeneous? and so forth.

Abstract characteristics such as respect, recognition and work clarity can be translated into day-to-day behaviours that, in turn, can be observed and modified. Respect is a subjective experience in response to behaviour, which can include such things as tone and language used in communication or saying please and thank you. Observation and feedback can guide decisions and initiatives to change day-to-day behaviours.

Introducing small targeted changes, as well as using individual role models, can have a big impact that ripples outward. A manager who models self care and personal respect sends a strong example to staff and implies a culture – at least in his or her department – of care and psychological health. When benchmarking departments, the impact of this management style will be reflected in metrics like employee satisfaction, absenteeism rates and engagement. Such metrics can also help an organization identify hotspots of poor psychological health that can then be reviewed and addressed. Often this can be done by leveraging existing resources (i.e. free trainings offered by the EAP provider or community-based resources) in a targeted way and following up to measure the impact.

As a certified psychological health and safety consultant, I help organizations identify their strengths and opportunities for improvement for psychological health and safety and then implement changes to improve, both as part of top-down and bottom-up initiatives. No industry or organization is either healthy or not healthy. Organizations often don’t realize what they already know about the state of PH&S in their workplace until they start applying the PH&S lens and asking the right questions. Furthermore, when they put on the PH&S goggles, they can integrate it into decision making, find new solutions and repurpose existing resources.

Each organization will have areas of strength and areas of weakness. Psychological health and safety is a process, not a state of being. Once you have adopted this new lens, the next step is to be transparent and acknowledge where things are now, not as they could be in the future. Then you can define your direction and keep moving through observation, feedback and implementing day-to-day changes. Keep the focus, give it time and watch the changes take root.

Rensia Melles is a certified Psychological Health and Safety advisor with over 20 years of experience supporting organizations with employee support services. She is the founder of Integral Workplace Health.

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