Employee Engagement, Interaction Key To Workplace Safety Among Employees with Mental Health Concerns

Liz Carey

Sarasota, FL (WorkersCompensation.com) – The key to ensuring employees with mental health issues do not impact workplace safety is making sure to engage and observe employees, especially after workplace injuries, an expert said in a webinar on Thursday.

Travis Vance, a labor and employment attorney with the Charlotte, N.C. office of Fisher-Phillips, said in a webinar presented by EHS Today magazine that mental health issues are prevalent in American workplaces. Three of every 10 employees will have a mental health issue in any given year.

The problem, he said, amounts to hundreds of millions of workdays lost each year due to production losses, and $100 billion in indirect costs related to employees’ mental health issues.

The top four mental health issues in the workplace are stress, burnout, depression and alcohol and drug abuse.

Phillips said today’s 24/7 workplace, where employees are connected to their job through their cell phones constantly, can increase the amount of stress in an employee. Inability to get away from work and have downtime can increase depression in employees.

And burnout, where employees find they are no longer engaged in their work, can not only be caused by the stress in the workplace, but also exacerbate it. In May 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) defined burnout in its International Classification of Diseases as an “occupational phenomenon.”

According to WHO, “Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy. Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”

Drug and alcohol use or abuse can be a result of any of those three concerns, Phillips said.

However, most employees with mental health issues will not seek treatment, Phillips said. Be it because they don’t understand their benefits under Employee Assistance Programs, or concerns over the stigma of mental health issues in the workplace, or just concerned that their issues will not be covered by insurance, employees are often hesitant to step forward.

While there are no specific protections OSHA directs employers to have in order to prevent employee burnout, there is a possibility that OSHA could cite employers for negligence in the case of employee burnout.

“For instance, some studies suggest that burnt-out employees have less awareness of their surroundings and struggle to maintain workplace safety practices, resulting in the misuse of heavy machinery, delayed emergency response, poor driving, employee fighting, and issues caused by getting behind on work-related tasks,” Phillips said. “If left unaddressed, a burned-out employee has the potential to be an unsafe worker which could lead to a workplace accident that affects other employees who suffer injuries.”

Drug abuse issues are especially problematic after workers’ compensation injuries, Phillips said.

Some payers may seek to minimize the potential impact of a workers’ compensation claim by finding the most inexpensive treatment options, he said. Some carriers, he said, may be more inclined to pay for opioid prescriptions rather than considering more expensive treatment options. “As such, there can be a higher incident of dependency – and increased tolerance levels in the event of a future surgery – simply in the name of reducing the financial impact of a workers’ compensation claim,” Phillips said. “Employers should monitor these trends, and even their medical providers, and evaluate the care provided to injured workers.

Phillips suggested creating an environment at work where employees feel free to come forward and talk about their mental health-related issues, or the issues they see in others. And, he said, it’s important to monitor workers’ compensation injuries once the employee comes back to work.

Phillips also suggested re-evaluating a company’s drug testing policies. While many companies have a zero tolerance policy for employees who test positive for drugs, firing an employee for a positive drug test may exacerbate problems and increase their depression to the point of intentional or accidental overdoses.

Phillips also suggested providing employees with robust counseling for mental health issues, including opioid addictions. Such actions may prevent further issues from happening, he said.

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