Study Advocates New Approach Toward Workplace Mental Health

Topics: Safety/health

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Employers have an obligation to provide and maintain workplace safety, including managing workplace mental health. To that end, employers should implement preventive measures to optimize the fit between individual workers and their psychosocial, organizational, and physical working environment. This study incorporates previous learnings, as well as globally collected data, to develop a strategy that can be used to help implement an industry-specific mental health program.


One in four people worldwide will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives. Approximately 450 million people currently suffer from such conditions, placing these disorders among the leading causes of ill health and disability worldwide.

Amidst a background of necessary organizational change, evolving technology, and complex personnel needs, the workplace is emerging as a central risk to the ongoing mental health of workers across the globe. A workplace also can be an inadvertent risk to aggravate pre-existing issues. The increasing interdependence of work and health presents both an increased risk and a potential opportunity for workplaces to be better prepared to meet the needs of workers in most industrialized societies.

Associated Costs

Emerging evidence indicates that employers that prioritize mental health programs in the workplace experience an increase in individual and organizational performance. Failure to do so can incur significant direct and indirect costs.

Direct costs associated with poor mental health management within an organization can include

  • Absenteeism
  • Turnover
  • Health care and workers’ compensation claims

Indirect costs can include

  • Presenteeism (workers are present but are not working to full capacity)
  • Lower employee engagement
  • Increased interpersonal conflict or complaints

While most employers notice absenteeism, they often overlook presenteeism. Despite the difficulty of obtaining an accurate measure of presenteeism, a study measuring health-related productivity estimated that individuals working with untreated illnesses cost employers $1,601 per person annually. A study of an employee assistance program demonstrated that 20% of lost productivity costs are the result of absenteeism, but up to 80% are associated with presenteeism.  

Employee Engagement

Worldwide, employee engagement levels tend to be lower in industries characterized by more-routinized jobs, such as manufacturing and production. The conventional management approach in these industries often puts process ahead of people, as opposed to an employee-centered focus that promotes improved business performance. Gallup data collected during 2014–2016 across 155 countries indicate that only 15% of employees worldwide are classified as engaged in their job. Two-thirds are not engaged, and 18% are actively disengaged.  

Employee engagement is dependent on a workplace that offers autonomy and promotes growth and development by people-centered leadership. Unreported mental health conditions may contribute to the current rate of employee workplace disengagement because they do not perceive the workplace to be a safe environment to perform their role optimally or report mental health issues. This, combined with managers or leaders experiencing unreported mental health issues themselves, can result in poor employee engagement and turnover.

Stigma and Workplace Discrimination

Mental illness continues to be one of the most-stigmatized health problems in the workplace, though it is now recognized as a leading cause of human disability. Workers are subject to inexperienced or preconceived employer judgment toward occupational capability, in conjunction with personal judgment from coworkers who have not received appropriate training.

With an established program in place, the stigma associated with these disorders will reduce, which in turn will open opportunities for the organization to recruit personnel that can work safely with a mental illness, because the program will support environmental requirements much like accommodations offered to employees with a physical challenge or injury.

A Safety or a Well-Being Issue?

For those employers that class a mental health program as a benefit rather than as a standardized safety requirement, the effectiveness of change management becomes diluted. The author’s observations reflect that safety is considered a workplace obligation, whereas well-being is considered optional, or an individual choice that affects the consistency of program implementation. Managers who elect to be proactive, as opposed to those that neglect addressing signs of poor mental health, generally avoid disciplinary action. Avoiding communication with personnel contributes to the increasing indirect costs associated with unhealthy workplace practices.

Executive Endorsement and Communication

Strong evidence exists that, when employees believe that their senior leaders or executive officers value a mentally healthy workplace, there are significant attitudinal and behavioral benefits. These can include a dramatic reduction in the level of absenteeism and more-positive perceptions of mental health in the workplace.

Policy, Procedure, and Advocacy

A workplace policy defines the organization’s vision for the future, specifying the framework that will be put in place to manage and prevent workplace risks to mental health in the workplace. Policy and advocacy priorities for any organization must address both day-to-day mental health risks, including self-reporting, and a safety-response procedure for workers and first responders. Many employees do not actively seek support through their workplace because of a lack of policies, procedures, and practices to support mental health, or poor communication that these resources are available.

Such a policy should be specific and explicit, including guidelines and obligations for the entire organizational hierarchy. The policy should define position statements for each workplace entity, ranging from the CEO to front-line workers, that include procedures for both work-related and nonwork-related mental health risks.

Crisis-Response Protocol

A mental health crisis may be defined as an episode that includes psychosis, panic attacks, or suicidal ideation as a result of an emerging or diagnosed problem. Without a response procedure in place, first responders are left to estimate how to respond and support the worker in crisis, a problem that increases the psychosocial risk being placed on first responders. Critical response procedures that are built into standardized safety practices systematically will better prepare the workplace and first responders to manage the incident effectively while maintaining best-practice safety parameters for the worker in crisis and for first responders.

Risk Reporting: Mitigating Future Workplace Risks

Mental health programs introduced to improve safety and productivity should be measured to determine return on investment. An organization needs to determine which risks require reporting and which remain confidential until further management is required. Mental health risks in the workplace are generally assessed through consultation with managers and front-line workers in conjunction with human-resources data reporting interpersonal conflict, complaints, and performance management. Mental health risks will vary between industries and even companies, so a workplace-specific risk analysis is recommended before the implementation of any mental health program.

Manager/Supervisor Capability Training

Managers are the most-critical players in the effort to implement early intervention for workers showing signs of poor mental health in the workplace. Manager training should include how to recognize warning signs and risk management vs. performance management, as well as followup procedures. Providing the manager with clear guidance about how to respond to the individual, offer workplace accommodations, and access information that facilitates the recovery process is a critical part of global efforts. Efforts to empower managers in this way should be cross-referenced with human resources, risk-management, and safety personnel to ensure that all divisions are consistent in responding to employees who face mental health challenges. These efforts result in managers reporting more confidence in their role, and a reduction in performance-management activity and termination.

This article, written by JPT Technology Editor Chris Carpenter, contains highlights of paper SPE 192949, “Mental Health in the Workplace: Leading Global Health Risk,” by Anna Feringa, Independent Consultant, prepared for the 2018 Abu Dhabi International Petroleum Exhibition and Conference, Abu Dhabi, 12–15 November. The paper has not been peer reviewed.

Study Advocates New Approach Toward Workplace Mental Health

01 August 2019

Volume: 71 | Issue: 8



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