Kim MacDonald is founder and CEO of 13 Factor For Business Growth, a mission-based company focused on psychological health and safety as a highest-and-best road to achieve a positive influence on mental health at work. She is also a speaker at March’s ConExpo in Las Vegas
There is a new frontier in occupational health and safety (OH&S). It is psychological safety at work and a set of known factors that influence positive mental health and have a direct relationship with productivity, profitability, engagement, inclusion, and work-related stressors or psychosocial hazards. Very much like physical safety, the focus is on prevention, hazard, and risk management, working conditions, and safety behavior.
“Psychological health and safety need to be a part of every workplace’s OH&S, human resource, and leadership agenda today,” says MacDonald. “Long before Covid, the World Health Organization and leading mental health organizations said that we are in a stress and mental health epidemic. The good news is that workplaces can make systemic culture change and take easy, direct action that will affect the experience of every single person at work for the better just by focusing on the common, typically occurring work-related stressors.”
By making small changes, big impacts are possible, says MacDonald. While every workplace has its own influences and conditions, the overall objective is to help managers, supervisors, and employees continuously adapt with prevention in mind.
“The stress impact may not have started in the workplace, but organizations have a huge influence on our lives. Organizations can also be leaders in changing internal conditions and preventing downstream psychological work-related injury and harms that can build over time.”
Though many things have an impact on our mental health, MacDonald says the workplace is cited as one of the top causes of stress in a person’s life. In a global context, the construction industry has the second-highest death-by-suicide rate. The mining, oil, and gas extraction industry have the highest.
Working conditions and mental health
There has been a great effort to increase the volume of mental health conversations at work and change the supports available for individuals, points out MacDonald. A focus on the person is an important part of an organizational psychological health and safety strategy but the other side of the coin looks at work conditions and work practices.
Uncertainty and how people communicate with each other at work can present a potential workplace hazard, she says. “Extended periods of uncertainty and unmanaged stress impact our physical and emotional health. It can affect thinking, cognitive function, and behavior. Just think of our recent experiences with uncertainty in lockdowns early in the pandemic.”
Over the last three years, workplace psychological health and safety has been moving beyond the innovators and early adopters, says MacDonald. Among the advancements, Canada, in 2013, created its voluntary science-based standard 13 FACTORS for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace.
Legislation, regulation, and compliance are changing in varying degrees around the world, she adds. In 2021, the global standard ISO 45003 – Occupational Health and Safety Management – Psychological Health and Safety at Work – Guidelines for Managing Psychosocial Risks was created.
Role of managers and supervisors
When it comes the workplace psychological health and safety and day-to-day impact, MacDonald asserts that “supervisors and managers have the biggest opportunity to be leaders in this area. There are all kinds of concrete actions they can take every single day to reduce work stress and the stressors themselves. Organizations looking at the biggest levers for positive influence should spend their investment on the growth and development of its supervisors and managers and the skills that lead to psychological safety culture at work.”
Gone are the days of command-and-control workplace cultures, even in environments that require a high level of consistency and efficiency in their operations, she says. Providing employees with a psychologically safe environment and greater autonomy, flexibility, and control wherever possible is a key to motivation, engagement, and one’s mental health and well-being.
“As you probably know from your own life, if you get to choose and make decisions, you are more motivated,” says MacDonald. “A reduction in the unknown can be a reduction in your stress because you have some control.”
Supervisors and managers spend a lot of time managing the dynamics at work among team members, she says. Supervisors and managers who want to create a different kind of environment can benefit from digging into their understanding of what makes people tick and their comprehension of workplace conditions.
“In the same way that you cannot eliminate all the physical hazards of every workplace, you cannot eliminate all the psychological hazards. But knowing what is influencing what and why it is happening allows you to manage the risks proactively and accurately.”
In her education session – Bust Work-Related Stress with Easy Team Talks – featured at the upcoming CONEXPO-CON/AGG 2023, MacDonald will discuss how managers, supervisors, and employees can change their relationship with uncertainty and other common and impactful work-related stressors. She will discuss the 13 organizational risk factors that drive organizational health, the health of employees, and the financial bottom line.