Tap into Safety‘s CEO, Dr Susanne Bahn and Dr Philippa Milne, Specialist Learning & Development at Rio Tinto were guests on the Safeopedia Women in Safety Podcast, facilitated by Tamara Parris. The discussion looks at the impact of psychological risk on workplace safety and how it affects your business.
To access the podcast click here.
The discussion opens with a question:
I hear the word psychological risk a lot of times, how do you see it impacting a business?
Dr Philippa explains that “there’s a bunch of different things that psychological risk in business effect. And I guess the important thing is how do we combat it? How do we buffer that? And that’s where I like to talk about psychological safety as well as a mechanism for buffering psychological risk”.
Dr Sue adds “It’s become quite interesting in organisations in the last couple of years I’m finding, particularly in Australia, we’re actually talking about psychological risk in the realm of safety, whereas predominantly or previously it was all around physical safety and for many health and safety professionals, this is actually a real challenge to them because all of a sudden they’re having to think about psychological risk”.
OHS obligations and duty of care requirements mean that organisations must include psychological risk to develop psychological safety. But some safety professionals have difficulty.
Dr Sue suggests “many of them sort of say, well that’s actually not our problem. That’s an HR problem or the well-being person, you know, it’s one of those who manage people and culture, that have to try and sort that out. It’s not our issue. But of course, legislation is now requiring that businesses cover physical and psychological risk and I just hear and see so many safety professionals simply out of their depth”.
What is the best response when approached by employees with mental health concerns?
Dr Sue gives an example, “So you’re a supervisor or a frontline manager. An employee comes to you and says, ‘I’m actually having some mental health concerns. I’m not feeling so great at the moment’. There’s usually polarised responses. Either I don’t want to know about it. This is not my problem. Therefore not empathetic and not actually, being supportive. Go see HR. The other side of the coin is that they’re overly protective, overly involved and then considered as interfering and then at risk of course of affecting their own mental health because they’re taking on a load that’s not theirs. So what is the response you should have when someone comes to you saying that they’re not doing so well with their mental health?”
Dr Philippa replies “We need to be putting processes in place so that the EHS professional knows what to do or the supervisor knows what to do. One of the problems we have at the moment is that no one’s trained in mental health or in psychological risks. So everyone’s kind of figuring it out together, and organisations really need some guidance on what mechanisms they can put in place. One example is peer support training so that the responsibility doesn’t just fall on the EHS professional.”
Should we be viewing psychological safety within a risk management framework?
Dr Sue notes “that’s only a recent move probably in the last two years that I’ve seen people actually talking about psychological risk as a hazard. It’s very interesting. It certainly wasn’t like that 10 years, but isn’t that awesome that we’ve come to this now? Unbelievably, yes. Because now we can have procedures and processes, we can have control measures, we can have training, we can actually put it into a framework that a health and safety manager, who’s a traditional health and safety manager, can actually understand and implement. So it is definitely the way to manage psychological risk because we need them to own the problem. But you know, with any change, and cultural change, cause I would suggest this is a cultural thing. It all takes time”.
What is the impact of psychological risk on physical safety?
Dr Philippa answers “I guess the first thing that comes to mind for me is how the symptoms of various mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and stress can manifest within a person. So poor concentration can be hugely problematic and that’s a symptom of depression. So what happens to the worker who’s operating a forklift and can’t concentrate? This is where we see the rising costs associated with work-related injuries and worker’s compensation plans. So that’s a direct link for businesses and a direct and large cost, which indicates where they can put their supports, doesn’t it?
Here’s another psychological risk that we see in many, many workplaces at the moment, especially with rostered workers in the mining industry. So if you have less than six hours sleep, your brain is functioning as if you’ve had two or three alcoholic drinks. Right? So where then is the duty of care and the burden of responsibility, what happens in terms of liability claims and this is where the litigation is forcing companies now to come in with more defined psychological risk and put it in the processes around combating it?”
What can businesses do to support psychological safety?
Dr Philippa advises “One concept is psychological safety and creating psychological safety within your team where people feel safe to come and talk to their supervisor and colleagues about what’s going on for them. I feel safe to ask for support. One of the things research shows us is that teams that are psychologically safe and have psychologically safe words, are more open about reporting what mistakes they’ve made”.
Dr Sue suggests “I think that there is a general lack of training around what is psychological risks, what is good mental health, what is poor mental health, what are the signs and symptoms?
We really lack empathy. We don’t understand what someone is experiencing if they’re having a mental health issue. Because you can have a mental health issue any time, any place. For a lot of people, depending on what that particular issue is, it’s not a life sentence”.
The preceding transcript is just a brief exert of the podcast and we recommend you click through to hear more.