The evolution of health and safety

The evolution of health and safety

As a strategic adviser to Comcare, VMIA and WorkSafe Victoria, Professor Niki Ellis is one of Australia’s leading occupational physicians and experts. Here she shares her insights into how occupational health and safety has developed over the years and the increased focus on mental health.

Gone are the days when physical hazards were the main concerns for safety officers. Today, the rate of injuries and fatalities is in decline and concerns around mental health conditions are on the rise.

A study commissioned by Medibank Private found that in 2007 the “total cost of work-related mental stress to the Australian economy was $14.81 billion” and “the direct cost to employers alone in stress-related presenteeism and absenteeism was $10.11 billion”.

Workers’ compensation claims for stress-related conditions are increasing. These are already the most expensive of all claims, because of the long periods off work that often result.

During recent consultations I have undertaken with employer organisations, they have said their members are interested in mental health, but are confused about what to do, and that there’s a lack of consistent, reliable advice.

How to encourage a mentally healthy workplace

A situation I often see in a workplace is that a supervisor and co-workers are well aware that someone’s mood or behavior has changed. They know of difficult circumstances inside or outside work that are causing problems and they suspect there’s a mental health problem, but don’t know if it’s appropriate to intervene, let alone how to. Often, everyone ignores the situation and hopes it will improve. Of course, in most cases it just gets worse.

Smaller organisations have advantages and disadvantages in dealing with mental health problems. On the plus side, usually people know each other well and communications are easier. However, small to medium-sized businesses probably don’t have the necessary in-house health and people management expertise.

Last year, some people from the mental health world and from the work world put their heads together to address this. The Mentally Healthy Workplace Alliance ran the Heads Up campaign and produced a useful guide: ‘Ten things you can do to make your workplace mentally healthy’. These are:

  1. Increase awareness. Workplaces are a good place for health education. Even something as simple as putting brochures in the lunch room can help.
  2. Talk about responsibilities. Business owners and supervisors have legal responsibilities for creating working conditions that do not generate excessive work pressure and everyone has a moral responsibility to look after their own health and do what they can to support their colleagues.
  3. Reduce stigma. There is still a significant amount of stigma associated with having mental health conditions. This causes people to hide difficulties they are having, which potentially could be addressed at work. I think this is an area where workplaces can make a huge contribution. Talking openly about mental health and encouraging others to do so will reduce the stigma.
  4. Build skills and confidence. Train your team and yourself to build the skills and confidence to approach and communicate with someone who may be experiencing difficulties. The Heads Up flyer has some good online resources, too. If there are concerns about someone’s mental health, speaking to them and offering them help when difficulties initially become apparent can prevent a situation from deteriorating.
  5. Encouragement. It’s vital that you encourage staff with mental health conditions to seek treatment and support as early as possible. Recently, I was doing some research on innovation in this area and found a company in Canada that offers a web-based program to employers or insurance companies. Through the program, workers can assess their own mental health, access appropriate online mental health self-management tools and create links between this program and the doctors who are treating them. Expect more like this in the future. Telehealth is big in this area.
  6. Support staff. Help your staff if they’re experiencing difficulties with staying at or returning to work. There is strong evidence that it’s better for your mental health to be at work rather than off work. One of the important differences between work adjustment for people with mental health conditions, as opposed to physical injuries and illnesses, is that more flexibility is needed. Their condition is more likely to vary from day to day.
  7. Monitor and manage. As a leader and manager, it’s important that you monitor and manage the workloads of your employees with mental health conditions, as work pressure is a leading stressor.
  8. Increase input. Allow your employees the independence and autonomy to decide how they want to work. This has a powerful effect on health and wellbeing.
  9. Prevent discrimination. Create an expectation of dignity and respect, then model this yourself.
  10. Provide feedback. Aim to provide more positive than negative feedback, but don’t shy from constructive criticism.

Business owners need to recognise the evolution we’ve seen in health and safety and put measures in place to address and support mental health initiatives.

Choosing the right person to drive your health and safety initiatives is vital. Find out how you can pick the best workplace safety advisor for your business.

Professor Niki Ellis is an occupational and public health physician. She is a strategic adviser to Comcare, VMIA and WorkSafe Victoria. Formerly, she was the Inaugural President of the Australasian Faculty of Occupational and Environmental Medicine and the Foundation CEO of the Institute of Safety, Compensation and Recovery Research at Monash University.

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