What is psychological health and safety and why is it important?

What is Psychological Health and Safety?

There's a new idea in occupational health: this idea is psychological health and safety. Psychological health and safety is about safeguarding the psychological health of employees.

Psychological health comprises our ability to think, feel and behave in a manner that enables us to perform effectively in our work environments, our personal lives, and in society at large. Psychological safety is different - it deals with the risk of injury to psychological well-being that an employee might experience. Improving the psychological safety of a work setting involves taking precautions to avert injury or danger to employee psychological health.

It is important to note that psychological health problems occur on a spectrum, from mild psychological difficulties on one end to severe psychological disorders on the other. The most common psychological health problems in the workplace are anxiety and depression. These conditions account for a large proportion of the negative impacts on employees and employers.

Needs, Rights and Guarding Minds at Work

Guarding Minds at Work is based on the premise that there are a finite number of psychosocial workplace factors that influence mental or psychological health in either a positive or a negative direction.

The essence of Guarding Minds at Work as a strategy is to identify not only those factors that are acting as supports for mental health but also those that present risks to mental health with the goal of strengthening the former and abating the latter.

Otherwise stated, Guarding Minds at Work is a method for addressing and supporting certain basic human needs at work so that their lack of fulfilment does not end up presenting risks to mental health.

Not all needs fall into this protected category, however. Only those needs that can reasonably be addressed in the workplace are relevant here. These basic needs can also be represented as rights that are protected in one way or another by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and by other provincial and federal legislation.

Stated in this manner, the workplace can be seen to have a crucial role in at least protecting, and possibly promoting:

  1. Dignity and respect for the person (serving basic needs for the sense of self-worth and self-esteem)
  2. Security, integrity and autonomy of the person (serving the need to feel safe both physically and psychologically)
  3. Organizational justice (serving the need to feel that one belongs to a community in which there is respect for due process and fair procedures)

To one degree or another, the psychosocial factors described in Guarding Minds at Work all revolve around the protection and promotion of these three major clusters of needs and rights.

Why is Psychological Health and Safety Important?

There are a number of reasons employers should assess and address the psychological health and safety of their workplace:

  1. There are current and emerging legal and regulatory mandates that articulate employer responsibilities in this area
  2. There are compelling financial incentives for employers to reduce costs and improve the bottom line
  3. There is scientific and practical evidence of the impact of workplace factors on employee mental health

How does employee psychological health impact an organization?

Negative Impacts

Compromised employee psychological health has a range of negative effects on organizations, including:

  • Financial. Mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety are rapidly becoming the main cause of disability in developed countries. Employers are facing increased disability premiums, rising health and benefits costs and expenses associated with replacing absent employees.
  • Productivity. In addition to absenteeism, psychological ill-health is a significant contributor to 'presenteeism', decreases in performance due to illness or injury while an employee is still at work. A recent study found that, compared to a variety of common disorders (e.g. asthma, migraine, arthritis), depression caused the greatest decline in work productivity and focus.
  • Safety. Reduced psychological health and safety contributes to accidents, incidents and injuries. Most jobs require employees to have good concentration, social skills and the ability to solve problems effectively. These skills are undermined by most mental health conditions. As a result, co-workers, customers and employees are at risk of serious, and sometimes dire, outcomes due to unrecognized or poorly managed mental health conditions.
  • Workplace morale. Reduced psychological health and safety contributes to conflict and grievances. If one member of a team is struggling, the whole team is compromised. Unlike physical illnesses or injuries, which tend to be visible to fellow employees, mental health problems are often described as 'invisible', because these problems aren't apparent or recognized by team members. Changes in a colleague's usual behaviour or performance due to mental health problems may be perceived as intentional, resulting in misunderstanding, resentment and tense relationships. This, in turn, contributes to absenteeism and turnover.

Positive Impacts

On the other hand, a psychologically healthy and safe workforce has meaningful benefits for organizations, including:

  • Improved recruitment and retention. In today's complex and ever-changing job market, current and potential employees have higher expectations for their jobs. They expect to be treated fairly, recognized appropriately and provided with opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge and develop new skills. Employers who create and sustain a 'great place to work' will attract and keep the best workers.
  • Improved employee engagement. An engaged employee is someone fully involved in, and enthusiastic about, his or her work. When employees are engaged, they view their interests as aligned with those of the company. They are more willing to extend an extra or discretionary effort to assist clients, customers and their colleagues. The net result is improved performance, productivity and quality of goods and services.
  • Improved sustainability. Organizations, like individuals, must be resilient in order to respond to external demands (e.g., market challenges, layoffs, mergers or restructuring). Businesses or work groups with psychologically healthy employees are best equipped not only to survive, but to thrive, when facing challenges.
  • Improved health and safety. Employers strive to create an atmosphere where there is a shared commitment to employee well-being and security. In such environments, staff recognize their responsibility to care for their own physical and psychological health, but also to support colleagues whose behaviour indicates that they are struggling or whose actions place others at risk. In such environments, staff are also more accepting and collaborative when accommodating a colleague returning to work from a disability absence, whether physical or psychological.

The Business Case for your Organization

The argument for addressing psychological health and safety varies across sectors, regions, companies and teams or branches within organizations. For some, the strongest driver will be financial; for others, productivity and growth. Some employers will feel a moral imperative to ensure the psychological health of their workplace.

You may be the manager of a business or work team and be directly responsible for addressing workplace health and safety. Alternatively, you may be a member of a human resources department, a union representative or a concerned employee seeking to convince leaders in your organization to take action on this issue.

Regardless, it is important to determine the appropriate business case for your particular situation. Be realistic and identify specific and achievable outcomes. Collect any qualitative or quantitative information relevant to your situation and consider using GMAW Resources to help you do that and to measure the success of any interventions you choose to undertake. Some of the data that you may use to build your business case may include:

  • Absenteeism rates
  • Benefit costs
  • Turnover rates
  • Accidents and injuries rates
  • Workers' compensation claims
  • Disability rates

Remember that the psychological health and safety within your workplace is not going to improve without action, and doing nothing is costly. Finally, keep in mind that efforts to address the psychological health and safety of your workplace are most likely to succeed when employers and employees work together.


How do psychosocial factors in the workplace affect employee health?

There is strong evidence that certain features of the workplace can affect employees' mental and physical health. Workplace risk factors increase the likelihood that an individual will experience increased stress, which in turn increases the likelihood of developing or worsening a mental disorder.

Does work cause mental disorders?

There is no simple answer to this question. The answer hinges on: what we mean by saying a disorder is "caused" by a situational trigger; where we draw the line between mental distress and mental disorders; and, our emerging knowledge concerning the relationship between factors in a person's life and the development of mental health problems. But there are a few things we can state with some confidence:

  • With the exception of psychological trauma related to an extremely stressful event such as being robbed or assaulted on the job, we can rarely draw a direct link between a person's work situation and their developing a mental disorder.
  • Workplace factors may increase the likelihood of the occurrence of a mental disorder, make an existing disorder worse, and impede effective treatment and rehabilitation.
  • Workplace factors may contribute directly to mental distress (demoralization, depressed mood, anxiety, burnout, etc.). Mental distress may not reach the level of a diagnosable mental disorder, and yet be a source of considerable suffering for the employee, productivity loss for the employer, and legal consequences if "toxic work conditions" are judged to have contributed to an employee's suffering and disability.
  • A supportive work environment can reduce the onset, severity, impact and duration of a mental health disorder.
  • Organizations that make the effort to identify psychosocial risks and to create a psychologically healthy workplace reap benefits in productivity, sustainability and growth.

What is the prevalence of mental disorders?

It is estimated that 1 out of 10 Canadians suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder within any given year - 1 out of 5 people will experience a mental disorder over the course of their lifetime. These can include very serious but uncommon conditions, such as schizophrenia, but are more likely to include conditions such as depression, anxiety or substance use. These figures increase sharply if we include the range of psychological distress that can be a precursor to a diagnosable disorder. Mental disorders touch all of us, whether we face direct challenges ourselves, or are impacted through our families, friends, or colleagues.

More than half of people with a psychological health condition do not receive a diagnosis, and of those diagnosed, less than half receive treatment that meets the expected standards of practice. There are a number of reasons for this, including lack of public awareness of the signs of mental distress, the shortage of mental health specialists and services, and failure to recognize mental health problems that accompany physical health conditions. Over 15% of Canadian health care expenditures can be attributed to mental disorders, but less than 4% of research funding is dedicated to mental health. Until May of 2012 Canada was the only G8 nation without a national mental health strategy. Another major barrier is the stigma associated with mental disorders. It prevents individuals, family members or concerned others from accessing care, thus increasing and extending undue suffering.

As Canadians, employers and business owners understandably share the national concern about the economic and personal impact of mental disorders. They recognize the need to improve our understanding and care for our fellow citizens with these disorders. However, they may not realize the impact that mental disorders have on Canadian public and private organizations. A 1998 study estimated the annual cost of mental health problems to the Canadian economy at $14.8 billion; more recent estimates put the cost as high as $35 billion. One-third of these costs related to the provision of public health services; the remaining two-thirds were borne by employers. Mental health problems are the fastest-rising cause of short- and long-term disabilities, with costs borne by private and public sector insurance, employers and taxpayers. Mental health problems are expected to be the source of more than 50% of all disability claims administered over the next five years, exceeding even heart disease.


Guarding Minds at Work