Traditionally, when people spoke about occupational health and safety, they concentrated mainly on hazards to workers’ physical wellbeing, but in recent decades, their mental wellbeing has become an even greater source of concern.
At a recently held seminar entitled “Managing Psychosocial Risk Factors in the Workplace”, Chief Labour Officer, Victor Felix, said statistics have shown that “excessive levels of stress have taken place as a leading cause of disability in North America and Europe”. Citing examples, he stated that, “In 1990, 13 percent of all worker disability cases handled by a major underwriter of worker compensation claims in the United States were due to disorders with a suspected link to job stress. Meanwhile, in Europe, stress is the second most frequently reported work-related health problem with 50 per cent to 60 per cent of all lost working days attributed to work-related stress”.
During her presentation, Mental Health Officer, Dr. Joanne Brathwaite-Drummond, said while there was no information available for Barbados. “Studies have revealed that 30 percent of employees have mental health issues in any given workplace. Forty percent of them may admit it, and over 50 percent seek help outside of work.”
However, one of the biggest problems workers diagnosed with mental health disorders faced was stigma and discrimination, unlike their colleagues with cancer, diabetes, or other physical health conditions. “People talk about cancer and have walks and other fund-raisers in support of their co-workers who may have it. They show more compassion, but people don’t talk about psychotic disorders, so those who might be experiencing these conditions don’t get the kind of support they need that will help them.”
On that score, Dr. Brathwaite-Drummond stated that training in “Psychological First Aid” would go a long way in providing assistance to people with mental health problems in the workplace. She said it was a concept introduced in the 1940s, but was not practised widely owing to the negative perception people had of psychiatric and psychological disorders. However, it was becoming more popular now and “it focuses on early intervention, since most breakdowns tend to be months, or years, in the making. Psychological first aid gives people accurate information to work with, which removes some of the limiting beliefs; teaches stress management, and helps people to become ‘effective first responders’ in these scenarios.”
She added that the Psychiatric Hospital offers training in this particular field.
Violence in the workplace was another issue raised during the morning workshop at the Labour Department’s Warrens office. Former police inspector and Chairman of the Caribbean Association of Security Professionals, Oral Reid, said a survey done in the US in 2017 indicated that 22 per cent of all violent crimes occurring in that country happened in workplaces, and after on the job accidents, homicide was the second leading cause of workplace deaths.
“The University of Iowa has divided workplace violence into seven different categories, including criminal intent, such as robbery; customers who may become violent if the company does not meet their needs; worker-on-worker, when two work colleagues do not get along with each other; personal relationships, when someone who is in a relationship with a worker has a dispute with said worker and brings domestic conflict into the office; disgruntled former workers “settling scores” if they feel they were wrongfully dismissed; along with religious conflict and acts of terrorism.”
Reid identified several causes, from the human resources level to security measures. In terms of HR practices, he said “A company may recruit someone who may be qualified for the job on paper, but may have some underlying issues that might create problems, or conflicts between supervisors and their subordinates, which may come about for personal reasons such as race, culture, religious differences or sexual orientation.”
The security expert said security breaches were a major cause for concern, and said “Companies must carry out risk analysis surveys on a regular basis, and see where they can tighten up on certain elements, including cash handling procedures; the installation of access control systems; security cameras; fencing; and physical separation of staff and customers where necessary.” He also said while organisations often had documents in place outlining security procedures and how to respond to any breaches, they were often filed away and not updated.
Regarding how to deal with employees who might have been subjected to a violent incident, Reid lamented that “all too often people think of maintaining their corporate image rather than addressing problems of this nature. I would recommend clear systems for documenting incidents, including report forms, statements from the parties involved, photographs, as well as medical reports and counselling services. Sanctions, such as termination or suspension, should also be clearly outlined, and there should also be followed up with all parties involved at a later date.”