Health and Wellness, Personnel Safety

Minding Employees’ Mental Health and Safety

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and it’s important for environment, health, and safety (EHS) managers to remember the important role mental wellness plays in everyday employee health and safety. Here are some facts surrounding mental health today, as well as tips and strategies for recognizing warning signs and coping with stress and anxiety.

Mental health

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Citing statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) notes that 1 in 5 adults in the United States experience a mental illness, with nearly 7% of Americans living with major depression and 18% living with anxiety disorders.

With so many millions of people affected nationwide, it’s not a question of if one or more of your employees will encounter a mental health problem in some form, either personally or with a loved one; it’s a question of how to provide the appropriate support they need to address these issues that too often go unspoken and untreated.

Know the Warning Signs

NAMI provides extensive resources to help determine signs and symptoms of mental illness. However, here are just a few key red flags for EHS professionals to be aware of:

  • Feeling very sad or withdrawn for more than 2 weeks or experiencing intense worries or fears that get in the way of daily activities.
  • Severe, out-of-control, risk-taking behavior that causes harm to self or others.
  • Significant weight loss or gain.
  • Seeing, hearing, or believing things that aren’t real.
  • Excessive use of alcohol or drugs.
  • Drastic changes in mood, behavior, personality, or sleeping habits.
  • Trying to harm or end one’s life or making plans to do so. If this is a concern in your workplace, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or call 911 if the emergency is immediate.

Be sure to also share these with your employees—similar to physical hazards, heightened awareness to mental health issues results in heightened safety.

5 Tips for Reducing Anxiety

As we mentioned earlier, anxiety disorders affect a significant portion of the population, and even if we aren’t dealing with a diagnosable disorder, we all suffer from anxiety now and then. Here are five tips that can help soothe incessant worry.

  1. Eat and sleep well. Sleep deprivation can worsen feelings of anxiety, and we continue to learn more about the link between how well we feel and how well we eat.
  2. Connect with others—but turn off the social media. Yes, the COVID-19 pandemic has us social distancing, but we can still make connections in other ways. Stay in touch via phone, text, or video, but be scrupulous with your use of social media—studies suggest it may exacerbate anxiety by setting up users to “compare and despair” (i.e., comparing their lives with others and then feeling an unwarranted despair as a result).
  3. Get moving! The simple act of exercise warms and relaxes the muscles, releases endorphins, and is a positive coping mechanism for stress and anxiety.
  4. Breathe deeply and remember to laugh. Focused and measured breathing (like the kind used in meditation) oxygenates the blood and instills a feeling of calmness, and the act of laughter is a great tool for reducing the stress hormone cortisol in the brain.
  5. Know when it’s time to seek help. We all feel worried, frustrated, sad, stressed, or anxious sometimes. But we should also be wise enough to realize when it’s becoming too much. A common rule of thumb is to seek help if symptoms last persistently for more than 2 weeks or if they are beginning to interfere with work, school, or social relationships.

Safety Must Triumph Over Stigma

The final tip above is sometimes the hardest for those who are struggling with mental health issues. There is significant reluctance to seek help or treatment due to a persistent stigma surrounding mental health. As EHS professionals, it’s our duty to erase this stigma by expanding our cultures of safety to include the prioritization of mental wellness among staff. We would never ignore any other dangerous hazard, and this should be no different.

As Mental Health Awareness Month draws to an end, ensure you continue to do all you can to keep your workforce safe—both mentally and physically—every month of the year.