Workplace Safety and Mental Health

4 min read
Kelly / Pexels

Source: Kelly / Pexels

The COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on people’s mental health. Steady streams of research articles revealed higher rates of drug overdoses, increased alcohol consumption in many countries, greater levels of prolonged grief, heightened anxiety, depression, adjustment disorders, relationship distress, learning and developmental delays, and increased work-family tensions.

Because these stressors were so ubiquitous, employers across many industries began addressing mental health at greater levels. I received more invitations to provide customized training programs for industries that previously appeared allergic to “touchy-feely” topics such as mental health and psychological science.

Despite the growing acceptance of addressing mental health in the workplace, the complexity of mental health can be confusing for employers. Not to mention how the latest comprehensive research may override former theories and popular psychological myths.

Therefore, let’s address how mental health and personality factors can differ in individuals and across industries and why employers may want to consult a trained psychologist who can customize training that fits their circumstances.

Some may have seen the recent headlines about an Alaska Airlines flight being rerouted after an off-duty pilot sitting in the jumpseat of the cockpit attempted to pull the engine fire handles. He reportedly took hallucinogenic mushrooms 48 hours before the flight and had lacked sleep for 40 hours, according to Reuters.

Interestingly, the Alaska Airlines incident came on the heels of a memorandum by the U.S. Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General calling for a “comprehensive evaluation of pilots with mental health challenges,” which was instigated after a copilot deliberately crashed Germanwings Flight 9525 into the Alps several years ago, resulting in the death of 150 people.

While pilots go through a rigorous and frequent multi-step medical exam and certification process to fly, the memorandum acknowledges that pilots must self-disclose if they have mental health issues and may feel inhibited due to stigma, career impact, and financial hardship.

Another challenge facing a person with mental health distress is that they may be more prone to negative thinking, which can interfere with their ability to adequately assess self-knowledge, external threats, and internal somatic sensations. Additionally, some industries may reinforce the tendency to avoid emotions, which has been shown to exacerbate stress and lead to more mental health and physical distress (Barlow et al., 2004) and potentially be seen in negative career thoughts (Coleman et al., 2021). This can contribute to vulnerabilities that lead the person to adopt more maladaptive coping methods like alcohol and substance abuse.

The biggest industry impacted by safety threats, construction, also has a high rate of substance abuse and is the leading industry in suicide (four times higher than the national average). The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which reported the latest suicide statistics, formed a task force to address mental health in construction workers and better understand the job stressors that increase depression and suicide.

While unrelated to suicide, research by Hasanzadeh et al. (2019) found a connection between the Big 5 personality traits among construction workers and safety. Specifically, agreeableness and neuroticism were not shown to impede workers’ concentrated observation of hazardous areas. Instead, the research showed that people with higher extraversion scores displayed decreased attention to hazardous areas. In contrast, higher conscientiousness and openness (and introversion) led workers to pay higher attention to hazardous site areas.

Meanwhile, Coleman’s research (2021) showed that careers in many other industries benefited people with higher levels of extraversion, while people faced more challenges with decision-making when they had higher levels of neuroticism.

Perhaps what employers should best understand is that multiple factors can impede mental health, including workplace stressors and a culture that reinforces emotional avoidance and consequent maladaptive coping. Personality factors, personal history, family and cultural upbringing, lifespan stage, social support, emotional health, and physical health all play a role.

Additionally, many people have not been trained to modify emotions without avoiding them (including employers). Barlow et al. (2004) offer a unified theory that focuses on positive ways to feel emotions while facilitating positive actions, internal and external assessment, and finding empowerment. I have oversimplified his program, which has received some positive empirical support.

In conclusion, the paradox is that we create more stress when we avoid an emotion—and there are multiple ways to enhance cognitive and behavioral responses to emotions and stress that are practical, empowering, and not overly emotional. Therefore, the opportunity is for employers to develop training programs that enhance mental health and safety while cultivating cultures that promote emotionally intelligent workplaces.

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