January 12, 2017
When Workplace Safety Is Core…
by Ronn Lehmann and Sally Spencer-Thomas
... the focus goes beyond preventing physical issues and includes supporting employees' emotional well-being.
In a true Culture of Safety, safety always wins. It is the first among equals; it is the card that beats all others. In short, Safety is a Core Value of the organization.
Safety and other Core Values are:
- Continuously communicated.
- Lived by leaders in their words and behaviors.
- Formally and informally reinforced, recognized and rewarded
- Integrated throughout all operations.
- Used as a compass to guide decisions.
- Measured and monitored against goals.
- Committed to, not simply complied with.
The Importance of Mindsets
It’s my firm belief that for an individual to be successful at anything, he or she has to have the right Mindset, Skill set and Tool set. And of these, the most important is Mindset. Why? Because Mindsets drive Behaviors.
Mindsets are created by a wide variety of factors: upbringing, social circles, religion, education, etc. But when it comes to the workplace, mindsets are created and reinforced by the organization’s Culture.
People behave safely when they have a Safety Mindset, a belief that safety in the workplace is their responsibility, both for themselves and others. That belief leads to decision-making based on the potential hazards and risks of any behavior.
Safety and Mental Health
The Core Value of Safety is not just about the right safety gear or procedures. It creates an environment where the mental well-being of the people is just as important as their physical safety.
Did you know 1 in 5 Americans in the workplace live with a diagnosable mental health condition? While many are able to use medication, treatment, wellness practices and peer support to manage these health conditions, too many go unidentified and untreated, And like most neglected health conditions, their status often worsens unnecessarily.
Unaddressed mental health conditions and addictions can negatively affects productivity, attention to detail, quality of work and the safety of the individual as well as co-workers, but with treatment, support and wellness, people living with mental health conditions can be some of your most gifted employees. Most employers simply aren’t aware that often people with the strongest work ethic, creativity, charisma, detail-orientation, and interpersonal skills as also sometimes vulnerable to depression, bipolar condition, obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety.
When left unchecked mental health conditions and addiction can be life-threatening. Tragically, the suicide rate in the United States has been steadily increasing since 1999, especially among working age men. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide was the fourth leading cause of death for males ages 25 to 54 in 2014.
See also: Language and Mental Health
When Safety is a Core Value, it goes beyond preventing physical illness and injury. It also includes supporting the emotional well-being of employees. Beyond being the right thing to do, it is in the organization’s economic best interest to ensure that its employees are mentally resilient, healthy, and productive. There is a significant return on investment by promoting employee mental health, positively impacting everything from disability and workman’s compensation to productivity and employee retention.
Does your Culture reflect the value of Mental Health?
It can be difficult to determine the true nature of an organization’s culture when you’re inside it. As the noted media theorist Marshall McLuhan put it, “We don’t know who discovered water, but we know it wasn’t the fish.”
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t continually evaluate your Safety Culture, especially in terms of mental health. These questions can help you determine if mental health is part of your Core Value of Safety:
- What does your company’s culture say about how you value mental health as a part of overall wellness?
- What does the work environment tell people about how they should best deal with stress? Conflict? Depression? Addiction?
- Does your company’s leadership model mentally healthy behavior? Is emotional intelligence and mental health self-care supported?
- Is anyone at the top level of leadership “out” and talking about their recovery journey from addiction or mental health challenges?
- Is mental health promotion and suicide prevention part of your Health and Safety Programs? (e.g., training on early identification and intervention, mental health resources like Employee Assistance Programs, suicide prevention hotlines, peer support resources, etc.)
- Do employees recognize unidentified and untreated addiction and serious mental health conditions as a potential safety hazard just as they would someone with a head injury, heart condition or broken leg?
Culture is Everyone’s Responsibility
Cultures aren’t something “out there”. They are created and maintained by individuals, not organizations. They are the sum total of the shared values of everyone in the organization, how each individual shows up and creates an environment for others to show up.
Anyone can — and does — have influence over the culture. Of course, Leaders have significant influence, but Culture is not simply their responsibility. To a larger or lesser degree, every employee influences the Culture every day.
If you want to have a true Safety Culture, everyone in the organization must have:
- A Mindset of Safety, viewing every situation and decision through the lens of safety.
- Safe Behaviors that ensure a safe workplace.
- A recognition that mental health is as vital as physical health.
- An understanding of resources available to stay physically and mentally healthy.
Cultures are created, reinforced, or even changed one person at a time, having the right Mindset to lead to the desired behaviors. That’s how you move Safety beyond a program or set of rules to “the way things are done around here.”
See also: Why Mental Health Matters in Work Comp
Promoting mental health, suicide prevention as well as physical health and safety is how an organization truly lives its Core Value of Safety.