When the team at Port Skills and Safety first came up with the notion of holding a week dedicated to mental health, we did so with a few goals in mind. Firstly, we wanted to establish an image of where the industry currently stands on mental health. This covered not just what operators said they were doing, but more importantly how those high-level initiatives were being felt by the workforce “on the ground”. Secondly, we felt it was necessary to impart that mental health schemes benefitted not just the people in an organisation but the business as a whole. A team in which all members’ mental health is catered for will be more productive and take fewer sick days than a team where mental health is merely given lip service. Finally, as you may expect from us, we wanted to explain how mental health fits into the Whole Person Approach to health and safety. If an individual is stressed or anxious about personal matters, they may overlook small safety details that could potentially save theirs, or somebody else’s, life. Not only this but one facet of the Whole Person Approach is to promote the physical wellbeing of an employee, which includes matters of unhealthy alcohol and drug consumption. This is often a symptom of mental ill-health and employers can easily overlook the mental cause to address the physical effects.
To satisfy the first goal, we created the first PSS Mental Health in Ports survey. Working with charity Mates in Mind, we crafted questions that not only gave us an excellent snapshot of the current state of mental health in our industry, but also allowed us to directly compare ports to other sectors such as construction and transport. As our article on Monday pointed out, 343 people from multiple levels of port infrastructure replied, highlighting common areas of concern for the industry at large. The data is due to be passed onto analysts to provide a more in-depth summary, however there were key findings that we could glean at the outset from the results. The most pressing was that a significant number of the respondents have experienced symptoms associated with mental ill-health in the past six months. Two thirds noted eating or sleeping too much or too little, while thirty percent experienced unexplained aches and pains. This alone does not necessarily denote depression or anxiety but can be a cause for concern if experienced with other symptoms. It is vital that everyone be familiar with these signifiers so that they can be identified and treated early, either by yourself or a line manager.
This brings us neatly on to the second point; There is currently a need to build greater trust in line managers when it comes to mental health. This comes in two parts: equipping managers with the skills to recognise and respond positively to a person in need and also creating confidence that managers will help in the right ways if approached. Based on the comments in the survey, many employees do not yet have confidence in managers as a safe route to seek help. The reasons for this ranged from fear of impacting job prospects to perceiving their managers as a source of stress in the first place. The need for effective manager training was emphasised in our webinar session on Thursday 25th, in which the importance of line managers having the skills to identify and refer their members of staff without prejudice was raised a few times. Peter Kelly, Senior Psychologist at the Health and Safety Executive, said that line managers are essential for any thriving business, and establishing that personal connection was a crucial component for identifying mental ill-health in the workplace.
Peter also raised the point that the top one hundred businesses in the UK imbue their line managers with these skills, relating to our second goal of explaining why mental health initiatives are good for business. Yet an important point was raised by the moderator Richard Steele in asking whether we ask too much of line managers, who already have several professional considerations independent of identifying stressors in their workforce. The panel were sensitive to the multiple pressures placed on managers and of course recognised that being a manager far from immunises a person from stress and mental ill health risks. At the same time however, any of us, manager or not, can do the simple but extremely powerful thing of asking how someone is… and then asking again! The first time we are likely to get a reflex ‘I’m fine’ reaction but if we can show genuine interest in our dealings with one another this is a great step forward. In short, the key is ‘be authentic’.
However, if we look to our article on Wednesday, itself derived from a second survey on employers’ actions to tackle mental health, operators are already implementing several schemes to help. Everyone said that mental health was an intrinsic component of their supervisor and management training, including courses on mental health and stress management and providing clear guidelines and resources to develop one-to-one relationships with the workforce. Based on evidence from both surveys, there is clearly a top-down effort to foster a supportive environment in the workplace, however that drive can easily lose momentum before it reaches the people it is designed to help without a consistent, systematic, and well-integrated plan
This brings us to the final point, where does mental health fit in the grander theme of health and safety? The most important element to note is that mental health is not constant but exists in a state of flux. We can thrive one day and struggle the next, and this fluctuation is entirely normal. Stress, physical health, and external factors such as personal relationships and money can all influence these changes and potentially impair cognitive abilities such as attention and memory. In short, if you’re worried about rent, you’re more likely to become distracted or make an unsafe decision which could lead to an accident at work. When put into those terms, it may sound obvious, yet as identified in Head of the HSE Centre of Organisational Health and Wellbeing, Panos Stavrakakis’ article on Tuesday, it has an alarming toll. Stress, depression, and anxiety accounted for 17.9 million days lost due to work-related ill health in 2019/20, or 55% of all working days lost to illness. With the issue as prevalent as it is, it becomes evident that helping to alleviate mental ill-health in the workplace is central to the Whole Person approach to health and safety.