The Accelerating Transformation of Employee Mental Health & Safety
In 1788 the British Parliament passed the “Chimney Sweepers Act” to stop the practice of conscripting boys as young as four years old to be apprenticed to master chimney sweeps. That law gave expression to a moral position that employers had a “duty of care” to their employees—a concept that has evolved from the time Charles Dickens described England’s “dark, satanic mills” as “soot-vomiting.” Since then the conscience of the world regarding employee mental health and safety has shifted glacially. That is, until now.
The convulsions of 2020 marked the beginning of an accelerating transformation. Emerging from our discontent has come a permanent change in our understanding of employee mental health and safety and what our duty of care is to each other.
Physical & Psychological Safety
We have moved from an (1) agrarian to an (2) industrial to a (3) service, and finally to an (4) experience economy, yet it took more than 250 years to fully acknowledge the need for physical health and safety and build a management system to sustain it. The applied discipline of physical safety is built on a rubric that identifies four standard hazard categories:
Thousands of organizations around the world have become proficient at continuously identifying and removing these hazards. For example, in the United States, during the nearly 50 years that the Bureau of Labor Statistics has been tracking the data, the incidence rate of nonfatal injuries and illnesses among private industry workplaces has fallen from 10.9 cases per 100 full-time equivalent workers in 1972 to 2.8 cases in 2018.
But it’s only been in recent years that we have begun to reconceive employee health and safety as an integrative concept that includes both physical and psychological domains. As a result, we have adopted a fifth hazard category—psychosocial. Psychosocial risk refers to intangible hazards in a workplace that have the potential to cause mental, emotional, or psychological harm. We’re talking about things such as excessive work hours and workloads, poor leadership and culture, bullying, harassment, role clarity, involvement in decisions, and lack of support.
Cementing the Need for Psychological Safety
The COVID-19 pandemic and the racial tensions that erupted in 2020 cemented the need to acknowledge psychological safety as a universal human right. The compounding effect of these crises invoked a stress response unlike anything we had witnessed in our lifetimes, signaling a shift in our collective consciousness.
Leaders across institutions looked deep into their institutional souls and realized that they lacked a truly sustainable commitment to mental health and safety which can only be achieved by removing sources of psychosocial risk and building psychological safety. Systemic racism, for example, reflects a profound lack of progress in mitigating psychosocial risk and vulnerability. In 2020 we learned that we were not prepared for the devastating emotional blows these events would deliver. Very few organizations had ever done a critical event preparedness exercise before COVID-19 based on psychosocial risk. The pandemic continues to inflict a devastating toll on mental and emotional health, revealing the breadth and depth of our liabilities.
Millions of baby boomers and Gen Xers had been hardened with so-called “thick skin” socialization. They were taught to grin and bear the full range of psychosocial threats and interpersonal indignities that might come along. But that strategy has been no match for the relentless pounding of these events on mental and emotional health. For example, the CDC reports that levels of adverse mental health conditions, substance use, and suicidal ideation in adults have increased. In June of 2020, a full 40% of US adults reported struggling with mental health or substance abuse. Even before the pandemic, the Word Health Organization estimated that poor mental health costs the global economy US $1 Trillion annually in lost productivity.
Evolving Laws, Regulations, and Standards
The landscape of laws, regulations, and standards that address comprehensive employee health and safety continue to evolve in two categories—legally binding measures and non binding or voluntary measures. Both national and supranational bodies are working hard to address psychosocial risks more effectively. Let me mention the two most significant national developments and the single most important global effort to develop a universal standard.
In 2011, Australia passed and published the model Work Health and Safety Act (WHS) to provide a nationally consistent framework and standard of health and safety protection for all Australian workers. The act defines safety as both physical and psychological and includes the model WHS Act, model WHS Regulations, and model Codes of Practice. Amendments continue to be added and the laws are passed and applied by jurisdiction.
In 2013, Canada introduced the National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety. It’s a voluntary standard created to address the rising legal, social, and economic costs of mental health issues in Canadian workplaces. The standard aims to promote psychological health and prevent psychological harm based on the following 13 psychosocial factors:
- Organizational Culture
- Psychological and Social Support
- Clear Leadership & Expectations
- Civility & Respect
- Psychological Demands
- Growth & Development
- Recognition & Reward
- Involvement & Influence
- Workload Management
- Psychological Protection
- Protection of Physical Safety
The standard is a response to the finding that 21.4% of Canadians suffer mental health problems and illnesses. While voluntary, the standard is seen as a starting point for more formal and binding regulations.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, ISO, the non-governmental International Organization for Standardization is in the draft stage of creating an international standard (ISO 45003) that addresses mental and emotional safety: “Occupational health and safety management—Psychological health and safety at work: managing psychosocial risks— Guidelines to help support and protect workers from psychosocial risks.”
The standard is due to be published as a full International Standard in the summer of this year. Though the standard is in draft stage, it is considered 95% complete and organizations are starting to apply it to help guide their psychosocial health and safety efforts.
Accelerating Progress in 2021
The crises of 2020 exposed our weaknesses in preparation and commitment to address the mental and emotional health of employees, but they are also serving as an accelerator to transform workplaces into sanctuaries of psychological safety. A broad-based crisis has the benefit of liquefying the status quo. We are now in a fluid state which allows leaders the opportunity to shift the prevailing norms of their organizations much faster than if they were starting with a fossilized current state.
We have consolidated our understanding of employee safety. Now it is the time to consolidate our commitment to it. Humans are social creatures that crave and are entitled to connection and belonging. They have a perpetual need to bond and collaborate. Now is the time to crack ourselves open, reflect deeply on the duty of care we have for each other, and transform our workplaces.