When you hear about safety in the workplace, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? For many, the topic conjures up lessons on proper machinery use, informed materials handling, protective equipment and sometimes, OSHA and other safety organization videos that sought to teach us the importance of workplace safety by shocking us with visual representations of the tragic accidents that could befall us if we weren’t cautious.
It’s paid off: in the United States, worker deaths per day are down from 38 in 1970 to 14 a day in 2016. Injuries and illnesses have fallen from 10.9 incidents per 100 workers in 1972 to 2.9 per 100 in 2016. Educating workers about not only the importance of safety but their right to refuse unsafe work has helped make workplaces across America so that men and women are able to return home at the end of their day.
And yet, despite significant progress, we often overlook a critical consideration of workplace safety: mental health. Narrowly defining a workplace injury as physical trauma stigmatizes mental health issues and serves to alienate and deny treatment to people that are suffering.
Take Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), for instance. For many of us, the first occupations that come to mind that would have an elevated risk of developing PTSD are military and emergency responder personnel. You wouldn’t be wrong – in a 2017 Canadian study, of the nearly 6,000 emergency workers surveyed, 44.5 per cent screened positive for “clinically significant symptom clusters consistent with one or more mental disorders”. As a baseline, Statistics Canada reports the rate for the general population is 10 per cent.
But there are many other occupations at risk of developing PTSD or experiencing other work-related mental health trauma and illness. Journalists reporting on violence, according to one study, could be nearly as prone to PTSD as soldiers. Many train engineers who witness death on the tracks are also susceptible to post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental illnesses.
Unfortunately, by overlooking the risks of workplace mental trauma and fixating on physical pain, we discount the validity of these workplace injuries and discourage affected workers from coming forward to seek help and receive treatment.
Even more unfortunate is that some workplaces actively attempt to invalidate on-the-job mental health injuries because they fear that employees could abuse the system pretending to be suffering to collecting their paycheques for lesser or no work. This is a gross misconception: building a supportive environment that recognizes job-related mental health injuries can ensure employees are better engaged, satisfied and increase retention while reducing absenteeism and reduced productivity.
If your place of employment doesn’t have a mental health strategy or doesn’t adequately handle the topic of mental health in the workplace, this is a good time to start the conversation: June is National Safety Month. This year, in addition to discussing how everyone can avoid physical accidents, make a note to focus on mental health in your workplace by building or updating your employment’s mental health strategy. By doing so, you could help save lives.