This Saturday, 10th October, is World Mental Health Day 2020, with the theme of ‘mental health for all.’
Of course the world is currently preoccupied by a different health issue, with the COVID-19 pandemic already causing over a million deaths. Lives are being cut short, millions of people are being plunged into the pain of grief which comes with the unexpected loss of a loved one, and many more are suffering long-term repercussions of the virus.
But while we make every effort to fight this unprecedented illness, it’s vital to remember COVID-19 isn’t the only player in town and to ensure other issues aren’t side-lined. We already know many diseases and conditions aren’t being prioritised as they would under normal circumstances, and mental health falls within this category. It may be less obvious or diagnosable than the spread of COVID-19, but an even bigger mental health pandemic has been quietly progressing for many, many years. It is being accelerated by the current situation, with 60% of adults and 68% of young people in the UK feeling their mental health deteriorated during lockdown, and it will remain long after COVID-19 is brought under control.
Dr Ingrid Daniels, President of the World Federation for Mental Health, writes:
“The current worldwide pandemic arose against an already dire mental health landscape that saw mental health conditions on the rise across the globe. About 450 million people live with mental disorders that are among the leading causes of ill-health and disability worldwide (WHO’s World Health Report, 2001). One person in every four will be affected by a mental disorder at some stage of their lives while mental, neurological and substance use disorders exact a high toll on health outcomes, accounting for 13% of the total global burden of disease (WHO, 2012).
The World Health Organization (2018) states that every 40 seconds someone dies by suicide. Annually, this represents over 800 000 people that die by suicide, which is more than people dying by war and homicide put together. For every suicide, there are many more people who attempt suicide every year. A prior suicide attempt is the single most important risk factor for suicide in the general population. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15 to 29-year-olds while 79% of global suicides occur in low- and middle-income countries (LMIC). Every suicide is a tragedy that affects families, communities and entire countries and has long-lasting and devastating effects on the people left behind.
This bleak picture necessitates that we ensure that mental health is prioritised now more than ever before..”
The Health and Safety industry has a crucial role to play in protecting the mental health of people within the workforce. Sadly, despite some amazing individuals and groups working extensively in this area, the industry as a whole is slow to exert its influence and take consistent, long-lasting action.
Initiatives such as World Mental Health Day are incredibly helpful in raising awareness of mental health issues, but it’s all too easy for companies to show their support once a year because it looks good for corporate social responsibility, and then to forget about it for another 12 months. What’s needed is a deeper, more consistent approach to protecting mental health, backed up by real, practical change.
Here are just a handful of the ways the Health and Safety industry can make a tangible difference to the management of mental health in the workplace.
Get board-level buy in
We must be honest with ourselves and ask if we’re doing the right things to positively influence directors and senior managers around mental health. And if not why not? As a profession we need to understand barriers and concerns, and work with senior leaders to show them there is a way to deal sensibly with this subject. We need to accentuate the huge benefits that are realised when staff work with good mental health. There are some fantastic examples of UK organisations, both large and small, who live and breathe mental health protection. What do they have that others do not? From experience it comes down to two areas; leadership and culture.
Promote adoption of ISO45003
ISO45003 Occupational Health and Safety management – Psychological Health and Safety at work: managing psychosocial risks, is due out in 2021. The standard is intended to sit alongside ISO45001 and has been painstakingly put together by leading academics, psychologists and practitioners. While it may take time to gain traction, the standard will underpin mental health in the workplace over the coming years, and we should encourage its adoption.
Build greater awareness
Awareness of mental health has improved significantly in the last five years but there is still so much more to be done. Creating engaging initiatives within the workplace to build awareness of what mental health is and illustrate how people can make changes to their lives is of the upmost importance. Even simple actions such as sharing this World Mental Health Day calendar with actions staff can take for better mental health can be effective. Because mental health needs to be viewed holistically, rather than in work and personal life silos, we specifically need to break down barriers around making suggestions or recommendations that are not directly work related.
Work cohesively with HR
When mental health issues arise in the workplace it is often unclear whether it is the responsibility of Human Resources or Health and Safety teams to take control of the situation. Greater clarity is needed, and ideally a cohesive approach where both teams work together to ensure a satisfactory outcome is achieved for the individual.
Upskill Health and Safety professionals
Understanding of complex health issues is growing, particularly around mental health. Sadly, the training required to work as a Health and Safety practitioner has not yet caught up. This situation results in a large majority of practitioners focussing on the more obvious safety hazards and less on the health risks, particularly around mental health, which by their very nature are not always immediately apparent. Upskilling Health and Safety practitioners in health-related subjects will help to address this imbalance.
Support mental health first aid
Following on from the great work of the MHFA social enterprise and its partners, it would be great to see mental health first aid training become a mandatory requirement for companies within the UK. Encouraging all businesses to undertake training and appoint mental health first aiders is a step in the right direction.
It’s easy to brush mental health issues aside, especially as the world deals with a more obvious pandemic. But good mental health is a fundamental human right and it is time we collectively ensure this is available to everyone regardless of race, religion, sex, creed or upbringing. By acting consistently and using our influence in board rooms and workplaces across the globe, the Health and Safety industry can fulfil its vital role in making mental health protection a top priority for all business leaders.
Written by Jack Rumbol