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With COVID19 finally coming under control, life can start to return to normal. It looks increasingly likely, however, that this will be some kind of new normal. In other words, lessons from the pandemic will be incorporated into the future, including the workplace of the future. Hopefully, this will include an increased focus on overall wellness and mental health.

A brief history of health and safety in the workplace

From a historical perspective, it’s actually taken employers quite a while to take health and safety seriously. When they finally did, the focus was, initially, very much on the physical. In many ways, this is entirely understandable. 

Physical safety is generally fairly easy to assess in practical terms, such as measures and quantities. These can seem, or indeed be, arbitrary, but they are generally simple for both employers and employees to grasp. 

This makes it easier for employers to enact protective measures such as PPE and relevant training, for example, BLS Certification. It also makes it easier to persuade employees to comply with these measures. They might not always agree with them but they can generally understand the intent. What’s more, these measures tend to be general so nobody feels singled out.

Mental health, by contrast, is often much harder to define. This means that it’s harder to come up with protective measures which will be effective for everyone. In fact, sometimes it can be counterproductive to try. At the same time, however, some employers at least, have developed an awareness of the importance of mental health and the need to promote and protect it in the workplace.

The business case for promoting mental health in the workplace

For most of its history, the concept of health and safety has been seen as a matter of compliance. More recently, it’s been seen as a matter of reputational management. The arrival of social media gave this aspect a huge push forward. In reality, this is probably still one of the main driving forces behind the new interest in health and safety, particularly mental health and safety.

It’s probably also fair to say that lawmakers have also helped motivate employers to take mental health seriously. Up until fairly recently, it was much more straightforward to get compensation for work-related illness and injuries than for work-related mental health issues. Now, the law offers meaningful recognition of mental health conditions and can offer meaningful compensation for them.

These are both good reasons for promoting mental health in the workplace. At the end of the day, however, they are both “negative” reasons, sticks rather than carrots. Fortunately, both academia and the media (regular and social) have been helping to publicize the commercial benefits of promoting mental health in the workplace.

In particular, they have emphasized the fact that employees with good mental health are more likely to show up for work regularly. They are also more likely to have the confidence to call in sick when they should. When they’re at work, they’re better able to give their best in terms of both productivity and performance. Bluntly, that translates into bigger profits for the employer.

The challenge of promoting mental health in the workplace

Getting the interest of employers is a massive step forward. It is, however, ultimately only of any real value if that interest can be converted into positive action. The major challenge here is that it’s very difficult to generalize mental health and its related issues. It’s hugely individual. What’s more, one person’s benefit may be another person’s challenge.

Take the issue of noise, for example. It’s widely recognized that excessive noise is harmful to health, both physical and mental. In fact, there are often legal limits on how much noise a person can be exposed to at work. This is why ear-protectors are considered standard PPE in some work environments.

The problem is that once you “gear down” from this, noise levels become very much a matter of individual preference. Some people need background noise to relax. Other people need peace to relax. Many people need background noise sometimes and peace sometimes. In other words, this isn’t just individual, it’s context-dependent.

Going forward, the challenge will be to find ways to allow people to customize their workspaces to their tastes without impacting co-workers. Hybrid working may help with this as may technology. For example, people who want sound could use headphones so as not to disturb people who want peace.

There will also be a need to support individuals with mental health issues (or who are at risk of developing them). It’s encouraging to see increasing numbers of companies not just investing in training mental health first aiders but also respecting that they need time to fulfill their responsibilities. Hopefully, positive feedback will motivate other businesses to follow suit.