With mental health issues on the rise, Ryan Exley from the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health explains why organisations must understand risk factors for poor mental health at work and implement measures to protect the wellbeing of their staff

During the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of focus was placed on frontline staff and key workers to keep essential services running. But the truth is, they were integral to society before, have been since, and will continue to be so. But do we ever stop to consider how the roles they play impact their mental health at work?

Negative impact of COVID-19 on mental health at work

We know that the strain they face can have a significant negative impact. In health workers, for example, a study by Abdul Rahim and others highlighted the burden of the pandemic on mental health, showing that up to 46% of them suffered from anxiety and up to 37% from depressive symptoms.

Burnout, meanwhile, was estimated to affect up to 52%, with physicians and nurses being the hardest hit. This does not bode well for the future of these workers or the quality of healthcare delivery.

While the worst of the pandemic is behind us, the world we live and work in continues to change, driven by technological advances, the global economic situation and many other factors.

These changes, particularly digitalisation, naturally impact workers’ mental health, both positively and negatively.

Digital technology and platforms can indeed provide opportunities for social connection and support. They also offer increased accessibility to digital mental health care services, which can be advantageous, including greater flexibility, particularly when such services are available, and improve monitoring to detect mental health issues early.

However, they can also lead to social isolation, anxiety, and depression. Furthermore, the perceived constant need to be connected and ‘digitally available’ can increase stress and contribute to burnout. So, while technological advances such as digitalisation offer significant opportunities for frontline staff and key workers, the risks are apparent and must be addressed.

The need for better understanding of mental health at work

The need for employers to ensure they manage the mental health risks of frontline staff and key workers is not new. But as we continue to change the way we work, consideration must be given to how this impacts mental health and how the risks can be managed to prevent problems from occurring.

Although interventions to reduce stress and burnout at work have been developed and evaluated, most studies have lacked the effectiveness to improve the situation. Thus, more knowledge of interventions and analysis of their mechanisms are needed to reduce the risk of further adverse mental health problems.

Similarly, high- quality randomised controlled trials of interventions to promote mental health, with coherently formed outcomes, are needed, especially at organisational level.

As has been recognised by Jennifer Robertson and others in Safety Science, improved guidance material and support from regulators is required, along with training for managers about how to identify and manage psychosocial hazards to reduce the significant burden of mental health disorders and musculoskeletal problems.

The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) believes the inclusion of health and safety (including mental health) in the design and implementation phase of new technologies must also be formally integrated into policies at both policy and company levels.

A prevention-first approach for mental health issues at work

Mental health issues are on the rise due to occupational and non-occupational causes, and both will impact people’s wellbeing at work.

In response to a European Commission consultation on approaches to mental health at work, IOSH advocated for a prevention-first approach, ensuring risks are appropriately managed and, when issues occur, the right level of support is offered.

We also highlighted that occupational safety and health professionals can be fundamental to modern businesses and play a key role in identifying health hazards, including psychosocial hazards, supporting good risk management and the prevention and mitigation of occupational risks that impact health, including mental health.

What is clear is that we cannot just sit by and let mental health issues continue to affect people. Instead, we must all come together to ensure that staff wellbeing is a key priority in the changing world of work.

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Health and Safety Specialist
The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health
Phone: +44 (0)116 257 3100
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