We're missing something crucial when it comes to safety at work

Physical safety at work has been the bedrock of countless regulations, procedures, and corporate guidelines for decades. An array of safety mechanisms, from fire drills to first-aid kits, ensure the wellbeing of workers in tangible, visible ways. But a significant facet has been flying under the radar for far too long: mental safety. Poor mental safety is just as essential and damaging when it goes wrong as physical safety, but it gets so much less air time. And I’m not just talking about mental health first aid or awareness workshops. They’re great and essential, but it’s so much more than that. It begs the question – why has mental safety not received the same degree of attention?

The World Health Organization (WHO) reported that depression and anxiety have a significant economic impact; the estimated cost to the global economy is $1 trillion annually in lost productivity. The cost to the UK economy is around £105 billion, with £56 billion of that being the cost to employers alone. And this doesn’t even touch on the personal, emotional cost individuals face daily.

Consider this: if an employee grappling with mixed anxiety & depression – a condition that the NHS confirms is a widespread ailment in the UK – works in a challenging environment like a factory, the ramifications can be dire. Mental health charity Mind describes the symptoms of such conditions often include lapses in concentration, forgetfulness, chronic fatigue, and feelings of detachment. The repercussions? An increased likelihood of a misstep or oversight can be catastrophic to life and business. 

Physical safety is pretty easy to picture—accidents, procedures, first aid kids, PPE etc. But mental safety is much less tangible. You can’t see poor concentration, poor memory, or fatigue, but it’s just as likely, if not more likely, to lead to something going wrong.

Unfortunately, there’s no quick fix here. I would love to say, “Do this, and you’ll be sound” it would make my job and your job easier; frankly, I’d be a millionaire. The solution is complex and depends on the individual organisation, but it always starts with recognising the importance of mental wellbeing. A research study published in Pubmed “Relationship between Employee Mental Health and Job Performance: Mediation Role of Innovative Behavior and Work Engagement. It highlighted that mentally distracted or distressed employees are more prone to workplace accidents.

So, where do we go from here? Cultivating an environment that prioritises mental ‘presence’ and ‘engagement’ is imperative. But what does that actually mean? It’s creating a culture where employees feel empowered and safe to speak up when they’re feeling overwhelmed or out of sorts. Where the request for support isn’t met with disdain or disregard or punishment but with understanding and – crucially – action.

This means that if our factory worker mentioned above isn’t in a great place, they feel able to talk to their line manager and say, “I’m not feeling right; can I take a moment?” or maybe ask for a second pair of eyes/hands to help out or ideally, get pointed in the direction for long-term support to improve their situation whether that’s therapy, occupational health or something else. Because as it stands, so many (an educated estimate says between 50-60%) don’t feel like they could do that without negative consequences. Meaning that they don’t speak up, nothing gets done, nothing gets spotted, and accidents happen.

Herein lies the paramount role of Human Resources and Health and Safety teams. They must collaborate, uniting their expertise to create holistic wellbeing strategies that envelop both physical and mental aspects of health and focus on the preventative as much as the reactive. Mere token mental health seminars won’t cut it anymore and, at best, are a waste of money; at worst, could be a waste of life. Sorry to put a downer on it, but it’s true.

The Harvard Business Review points out that strategies focusing on leadership values, responsive culture, and a genuine sense of psychological safety have a positive ripple effect throughout organisations. Such initiatives improve mental wellbeing and bolster productivity, engagement, and overall job satisfaction. In other words, there couldn’t be a stronger case for taking mental safety as seriously as physical safety.

In conclusion, as industries continue to uphold and refine physical safety standards, it’s high time mental safety is also brought to the forefront and started co-existing rather than being seen as separate entities. A genuinely comprehensive work environment ensures the mind and body’s wellbeing. It’s not merely a good-to-have but an absolute essential in the workplace of today.