Psychological health and safety at work

If you work in healthcare or social services, it’s time to sit down and face some frightening facts. You are working in the industry that has the most self-reported illnesses in the last 12 months, closely followed by people working in the public administration sector, according to data recently released by the Health & Safety Executive.

Dealing with difficult customers, patients and pupils is common for many of us during our workday, but a survey of workplace stresses across Europe shows that it is a lot more harmful and leads to more days off work than, for example, workplace injuries. As much as 46% of all self-reported work-related illnesses in the UK were because of stress, depression or anxiety.

The worst stress causing factors were:

– dealing with difficult customers
– time pressure
– long and irregular hours
– communication
– job insecurity
– lack of influence
– discrimination

Some countries are particularly affected by workplace stress: in Ireland, a staggering 68% of employees report that dealing with difficult customers is a major source of concern in their workplace.

However, some companies are fighting stress at its source in some original ways. For example, an Italian textile company recently carried out an interesting experiment to reduce stress among their employees. External consultants believed internal e-mails was the easiest factor the company could eliminate to improve employee’s wellbeing. In an experiment, the employees were banned from sending internal emails for a whole week and only check their inbox maximum three times a day. In general, the company’s employees felt much happier and less stress after the experiment.

For most companies, less drastic actions will be preferred, and can also have great benefits in the overall stress-levels across the company via a health and safety policy focusing on mental health, and assessing work activities that might be more stressful than others. Then, an action plan to minimise the risk and effects of stress can be implemented. More importantly, employers should attempt to give management commitment to encouraging a supportive culture where colleagues assist each other to ease peaks in the workload.

“The modern way of working in offices is fast and constant. If uncontrolled this could result in excessive physical and mental pressure leading to stress related ill health”, health and safety consultants explained when asked to reflect on the impact of stress at work. They added that “mental health was not considered in the past as it is today in the workplace. The cause of ‘nervous breakdowns’ in the past were often wrongly believed to be a weakness in the individual, rather than a fault of management and working procedures”. This has now changed.

Benefits of improved employee’s mental health

A study by Harvard found that by offering employees treatment and providing psychotherapy to those who needed it, they improved employee’s general mood and also productivity up to about 2.6 hours of extra work per week. This is worth about $ 1,800 a year (based on average wages). The conclusion was that: “in the long term, costs spent on mental health care may represent an investment that will pay off — not only in healthier employees, but also for the company’s financial health”.

Although technology is blamed for causing us a lot of stress today, it should not be forgotten that the information technology age has revolutionised the old way of working which created its own pressures – waiting for typing to be done, correcting errors, the delay of posting mail, and slow access to information in paper filing systems.

Sunniva Naess
Sunniva Naess
Sunniva writes about health and safety and the dangers of not having proper procedures in place and can be found tweeting at @SunnivaNess.