Want to create a work environment that supports the mental well-being of your team? Focus on inclusion and psychosocial safety.
That’s according to experts Georgia Bryce-Hutchinson, M.S., MSEE, LMFT, CPLC, and Kahlilah Guyah, CSP, CHMM, who presented a webinar for our Blacks in Safety Excellence (BISE) Common Interest Group in July 2020 called “Promoting Mental Well-Being for People of Color Within the Realms of Environmental Health and Safety.” They say it’s important to include mental well-being in your risk assessment and management process — and to evaluate your response through the lens of diversity, equity and inclusion — because mental health outcomes are directly linked with your organization’s overall success.
“There are people who struggle with mental health issues, but they don’t want to talk about it because the environment is not receptive to hearing that kind of conversation and people are afraid,” Bryce-Hutchinson says. “The stigma is significant, but we have to find a way to work around it, and education is key.”
What to Understand About Mental Well-Being
We Talk About Physical Illness More Than Mental Illness
Georgia: We have frank conversations about physical illness. We have open dialogue readily. But when it comes to the idea of mental illness, we tend to take a dismissive approach and believe that people are just being pretentious.
The concept of seeing a therapist is usually a daunting experience for the average person. It’s an issue surrounded by significant myths and barriers in our community.
Kahlilah: If we become well-versed in psychological or psychosocial hazards and the workplace risks related to mental health and psychological safety, it will be a natural transition for us as safety and health professionals to include this psychosocial risk in the risk assessments that are typically part of our management systems. A psychological risk or hazard includes elements not only of the work environment but also of management practices and organizational dimensions that increase the risk to workers’ mental well-being and psychological safety.
Many People Experience Mental Illness for Many Different Reasons
Georgia: Mental illness is not the result of just one specific dynamic. It is widely held that human beings are three-dimensional: We are body, soul and spirit. A factor at any level, at any given time, could lead to mental illness. Our employees are everyday people who could be struggling even before they make it through the door of our organization.
From a psychological standpoint, other issues often play out. This is one significant factor that I find a lot with people in therapy. Issues such as trauma (or specifically trauma as a result of sexual assault), domestic violence, bullying — it could be stuff from childhood that is playing out into their adult years. People may have experienced neglect, rejection, abandonment or chronic medical concerns. Even the loss of someone — whether it’s by death, the loss of a job, relationship. The grieving process is not necessarily considered a mental health issue, but if it precipitates an issue or it continues for a long time, it could develop into depression. Those who struggle with low self-esteem or issues of shame, guilt, fear, unforgiveness or interpersonal conflicts could also develop symptoms of mental illness.
How Is Mental Well-Being Different for Black Americans?
Cultural and Economic Context
Georgia: There are socioeconomic and sociocultural issues that are specific to the Black community. Unfortunately, there is significant miseducation concerning the idea of mental illness and its relationship to personal weakness.
Among Black women in particular, there is this idea that we’re supposed to be strong. If we perpetuate this idea that you’re supposed to be strong, then when you’re struggling, you are unlikely to seek the help you need. Rather than referring to it as depression, we tend to call it the blues. “Oh, I was just having the blues today and I'll get over it. I'm just going to blow it off.”
There’s also a lot of hyper-vigilance and hyper-anxiety. Black people are at a greater risk for post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of violence. And not only violence. When we start talking about issues such as institutional and systemic racism, it gives rise to this idea of what we call “racial battle fatigue.”
Now what does that look like? There’s a struggle of perceiving that your environment is stressful, ambiguous. People tend to become hyper-vigilant or display hyper-anxious behaviors because there are feelings of loss, as though they have no control. Frustration, anger, helplessness, feelings of hopelessness — those emotions perpetuate. When that begins to weigh on your mind as well as your emotions, issues such as anxiety and depression readily follow.
There is also the issue of inaccessibility of resources. Discrimination is very present in our medical arena. Sometimes, people of color have inadequate access to sufficient treatment or treatment that is adequate enough to help them deal with these issues. Black people are less likely to receive guideline-consistent care, unfortunately. And because we’re less likely to be included in research, there is no baseline information readily available for people in our community. Resources may also be unavailable due to poverty. Even for those who want to seek help with their mental well-being, the resources may not be there.
COVID-19, Systemic Racism and the Current Moment
Georgia: Black people have, in terms comparative to other races, been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic more than several other groups in this country. Couple that with news reports on systemic racism and issues of racial inequities and disparities. These are the kinds of things we’re having to contend with. Unfortunately, because of the pressures we’re experiencing in our society, Black people are more likely to experience mental illness.
Black Americans may also have to contend with the cultural biases of mental health providers who don’t understand our historical or cultural context — even if they’re not setting out to be biased against individuals. There is also inadequate response to reinforced stereotypes. We’re often viewed from a particular angle, and it shows up whether it’s in healthcare, the legal system or the financial arena.
Kahlilah: African Americans have different experiences with mental illness than others, and that’s due to several factors. While it is not our intention to promote discrimination in any way, we want data to inform the risk assessments that we conduct and allow us as safety and health professionals to more holistically reduce the risks in our workplace sensitive to the individual needs inherent to different populations.
What Can Safety Professionals Do to Make a Difference?
Addressing Psychological Health
Georgia: Job-related stressors contribute to mental illness. These are just a few examples of things people might experience or encounter on the job:
- Low autonomy. If people feel they don’t have much to contribute or that their voices and opinions don’t matter, that could weigh on their self-esteem. This could show up as anxiety or depression.
- A closed-door approach. Not having access to higher-ups or those who make decisions also add to stress.
- Poor working conditions or a high workload. It’s difficult to feel like you never have enough time to finish the task at hand.
- Inadequate training. Workers need to feel they have sufficient training to carry out the work they’ve been assigned or the task they’ve been asked to complete.
- Microaggression and implicit bias. Stereotypes that center on people of color show up in our work environments as well.
Kahlilah: We spend about 90,000 hours at our workplaces. That’s one-third of our lives. If we are able to make our work sites places that don’t promote stress, that meet the basic needs of our workers and, in the best cases, exceed the expectations and the needs of our workforce, then each workplace will exceed expectations and performance will improve because each worker’s psychological needs are being met.
Addressing Psychological Safety
Kahlilah: Psychological health is the way we think and feel and behave in a manner that enables us to perform effectively, not only at work but in our personal lives and in society at large. But psychological safety is a little bit different. It deals with the risk of injury to the psychological well-being that a worker might experience. And improving the psychological safety of the work setting involves taking precautions to avoid that injury or avoid that danger to the employee's psychological health.
However, this journey toward more psychologically safe workplaces is really the second tier for organizations. It’s what you want to do after you’ve done a great job of identifying the psychosocial risk and you have a program that is actively reducing those risks. This is the second part of that effort to continue your improvement.
Many safety professionals are familiar with the hierarchy of controls and how we use it to reduce risk from a physical standpoint. NIOSH has incorporated this hierarchy into its Total Worker Health® approach. We can use this to address psychosocial risk factors, knowing that the higher the control, the more effective it is:
- We can eliminate work conditions that negatively impact mental well-being and psychological safety.
- We can replace negatively impacting policies and procedures with ones that promote safety and health and psychological health and well-being.
- We can redesign work environments where needed.
- Finally, we can educate and encourage personal change.
Essentially, we want to take these four steps:
- Understand and communicate the psychosocial hazards associated with our operation.
- Incorporate those into the risk assessment process, then reduce those risks using the hierarchy of controls.
- Apply layers of protection where applicable. This involves using multiple controls from the hierarchy to reduce risk even more.
- Continually improve by reducing those lower-ranking psychosocial hazards identified in our risk assessments and revisit that process regularly.
As we do this, we as safety and health professionals can become mental health advocates. We can reduce the stigma associated with mental illness. We can normalize these conversations within our workplaces, and we can ensure we have a workforce that is more psychologically healthy and safe.
This information, this risk assessment, ties to the bottom line. It ties to increased production. It ties to increased effectiveness. If we are able to bring more value to our businesses as safety and health professionals, then we become valuable partners in this process.
- Georgia A. Bryce-Hutchinson is a mental health consultant and practitioner, who leverages an environmental engineering background to set the framework, language and impact of coaching across corporate and one-on-one environments. She specializes in advising organizations and employees on mental health literacy, awareness, and crisis intervention, and devising preventative strategies to increase workforce productivity, engagement, and retention. She is a communicator, advocate, and business consultant who ensures partnerships are aligned to corporate growth and health initiatives and provides systems and approaches that gain trust across employees, senior leaders, and stakeholders. Georgia is the Owner of Building Families According to Pattern and Building According to Pattern, through which she provides family therapy services and life coaching services.
- Kahlilah Guyah is the CEO, founder and principal consultant at EHS Compliance Services Inc. (EHSCSI). She helps organizations leverage their safety and health programs to reduce organizational risk, deliver business value and elevate brand reputation. Kahlilah is a speaker who has been featured at conferences across the country. Kahlilah is a champion for integration who is on a mission to embed safety and health excellence into daily business operations. When not working with clients, you can find Kahlilah mentoring emerging safety and health professionals or hosting conversations on her LinkedIn Live show, "Connecting the Dots.”
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