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Workplace Mental Health Blog

How to Create a Psychologically Healthy and Safe Workplace

When considering how to create a psychologically healthy and safe work environment, it does require a high level of innovation or new thinking. One can simply look at how workplaces have been addressing physical health and safety for the past several decades.

There are two well established methods to proactively address health, safety and wellbeing in the workplace: 1) Risk Management, and 2) Wellbeing Promotion. If you consider the public health model[1] approach to disease prevention, wellbeing promotion can be considered a primary prevention intervention, suitable for 100% of employees to reduce illness risk and promote positive mental health. Risk management can be considered a secondary prevention initiative, to identify at risk employees and groups, and reduce the likelihood and consequence of illnesses.

While risk management and wellbeing promotion activities can be carried out independently of each other, when used together, they increase the chances of positive employee mental health outcomes. Where they fail to prevent a stress related illness occurring, tertiary prevention interventions should be made available, including counselling (e.g. Employee Assistance Programs), and injury management and return to work provisions.

While risk management and wellbeing promotion activities can be carried out independently of each other, when used together, they increase the chances of positive employee mental health outcomes.

Method 1: Risk Management

Risk Management in relation to psychological health, safety and wellbeing involves four steps[2]:

  1. Identify psychosocial hazards – find out what could cause harm, considering recognised psychosocial hazards (e.g. role overload, role clarity, job control).
  2. Assess risks if necessary – understand the nature of the harm that could be caused by the psychosocial hazards, the likelihood of it happening and the amount of harm that could be caused.
  3. Control risks – implement the most effective control measures that are reasonably practicable in the circumstances.
  4. Review hazards and control measures to ensure they are working as planned.
Figure 1: The Risk Management Process

As figure 1 above demonstrates, the risk management process also requires management commitment and consultation with employees, including Health and Safety Representatives (HSRs) if they exist.

When controlling risks (step 3), it is important to reduce risks using higher order controls wherever possible. The Hierarchy of Controls applied to Total Worker Health[3] by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health provides a conceptual model for prioritising efforts to advance worker safety, health and wellbeing (see figure 2 below). Controls and strategies are presented in descending order of anticipated effectiveness and protectiveness. It is an easier model to apply to psychological health and safety than the original hierarchy (which is more specific to physical hazards).

Figure 2: Hierarchy of Controls Applied to Total Worker Health (NIOSH)

FlourishDx helps employers follow a risk management process for the identification and mitigation of psychosocial risks. The platform contains the “Work Design Survey”, which is a short battery of survey scales (86 multiple choice items) to assess employee perceptions of common psychosocial hazards.

Consistent with best practice, and the integrated approach to workplace mental health[4], the Work Design survey also assesses positive characteristics of work that promote flourishing, as well as steps taken by the employer to mitigate illness.

Consulting with employees during the risk management process, including the identification of hazards is a WHS legal requirement. The FlourishDx Work Design survey facilitates this process at scale and across geographical diverse work groups.

Method 2: Health Promotion

Workplace health promotion[5] is the process of fostering healthy workplace policies and supportive environments, enhancing positive social conditions, building personal skills, and promoting healthy lifestyles. Physical health promotion at work typically focuses on the five pillars of good health, often abbreviated with the acronym “SNAPS”:

  • smoking cessation,
  • nutrition,
  • alcohol consumption,
  • physical activity, and
  • sleep

Health promotion at work typically focuses on policies, education, and behaviour change programs to promote the development of these five pillars.

Martin Seligman (often referred to as the godfather of positive psychology – the branch of psychology concerned with wellbeing), has identified five pillars of mental health, often abbreviated with the acronym PERMA[6]:

  • positive emotions,
  • engagement (flow),
  • positive relationships,
  • meaningfulness, and
  • accomplishment

To promote positive mental health in the workplace, employers should introduce policies, education, and behaviour change programs aimed at assisting employees develop these pillars. But where to start?

FlourishDx contains the “Flourish Survey”. It is a short survey to assess the degree to which individuals have developed PERMA. This can be used as a needs analysis, to determine priorities for intervention at either an individual or group level. At a workplace level, the Flourish Survey results are a leading indicator of mental health, as it has been shown that people with well-developed PERMA are less susceptible to mental illness, and more likely to be flourishing.

[1] http://www.euro.who.int/en/health-topics/Health-systems/public-health-services/policy/the-10-essential-public-health-operations/epho5-disease-prevention,-including-early-detection-of-illness2

[2] https://www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au/media-centre/psychological-health-and-safety-workplace-national-guide

[3] https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/twh/letsgetstarted.html

[4] https://bmcpsychiatry.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1471-244X-14-131

[5] http://www.healthierwork.act.gov.au/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Guide-to-Promoting-Health-and-Wellbeing-in-the-Workplace-2016.pdf

[6] https://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/learn