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Experts link mental health and stress to workplace safety


SAN ANTONIO — From burnout to the recently coined trend of “quiet quitting,” psychological issues in the workplace are the new slippery floor that can lead to upticks in injuries, according to health and safety professionals.

In separate sessions Monday at Safety 2023, the American Society of Safety Professionals’ annual conference, experts discussed what workplaces are facing in the post-pandemic world, where mental health issues are becoming destigmatized and the connection between workplace injuries and psychosocial issues is being brought to the forefront.

In a session on disengagement from the workforce, Randy Milliron, safety manager for the city of Gillette, Wyoming, pointed to the correlation between so-called quiet quitting – as he defined it, the practice of managing stressful or unfavorable work environments by doing the bare minimum – and the risks of lax safety practices and the injuries that could follow.

“So, how does (quiet quitting) affect safety?” he said of workers whom he described as not going beyond the bare minimum required to keep their jobs. “Would they actually go the extra mile to do monthly safety inspections? Do they do daily pre- and post- vehicle inspections for the hazards? Are they reporting hazards? Are they offering up ideas how to improve safety?”

Citing a recent Gallup Poll that found 68% of workers to be “disengaged” from their work, Mr. Milliron said companies should pay more attention to what workers like and dislike about their jobs and be prepared to act on the information.

“If you're going to ask for their input, you better listen,” he said. “If they think you’re not listening they will stop offering solutions. If they don't feel appreciated, if they don't feel valued or listened to … it just adds to their disengagement.”

“We need to remember that our employees’ mental health is important,” Mr. Milliron said.

In a separate session on psychosocial issues in the workplace, Shelly Meadows, Oakville, Ontario-based co-founder and partner of Navigation Consulting & Training, a company that helps workplaces manage psychological risk factors, said poor mental health correlates with workplace injuries.

Hazardous environments become more hazardous, and safety is often overlooked, she said. “A lot of this is actually being driven from a (human resources) standpoint, but, to be honest, I tend to think it sits in health and safety,” she said. “If you have unmitigated stress you have an increase in workplace accidents.”

Co-presenter Martin Franchi, Toronto-based partner at Navigation Consulting & Training, said even ergonomics and stress are linked.

“If half your workforce is highly stressed, they’re like this,” he said, imitating a worker hunched over a computer. “Your muscles are all tense, and you're going to develop musculoskeletal disorders.”

The solution, according to experts, is talking to workers to inquire about mental concerns and why they may feel disconnected.

“Treat this like an accident investigation,” Mr. Milliron said. “You need to ask tough questions.”

“Psychosocial hazards should be assessed similarly to physical hazards,” Mr. Franchi said. “It’s the exact same approach… but it’s abstract. It will probably be one of the difficult conversations you are going to have” in the workplace.