VRSA roundtables discuss mental health in the workplace

According to a study by the Harvard Business Review, 42 percent of global employees experienced a decline in mental health in 2020. Only 38 percent of employees say that their employer takes proactive steps to create a healthy workplace culture. And 45 percent said that they would seek mental health support if there were more open conversations.

Over the past two months, VRSA Senior Safety Consultant Edward Shelton has facilitated three Mental Health in the Workplace roundtable discussions.

“The talks centered around how we increase conversations and let employees know what is available to them, so that those who would be receptive to receiving help would reach out,” said Shelton.

With a record number of US police officers dying by suicide, one VRSA member decided to contract with a mental health expert and clinical psychologist to provide free classes to employees on understanding depression and maintaining well-being to include a focus on diet, nutrition and exercise.

“Employees can reach out to the clinical psychologist at any time to discuss issues at no-cost to the employee,” said Shelton. “While this option is costly, it reflects a true investment into the well-being of their employees.”

Additionally, several of our members are looking into developing posters and handouts to be distributed to employees regularly. Many are also providing an overview of available mental health resources to employees at every annual review.

“One member is implementing toolbox talks between supervisors and employees to cover benefits and assistance to employees,” said Shelton. “They feel that employees will feel more comfortable talking to the front line supervisor that they work with everyday, as opposed to talking to the HR manager with whom they may not have any relationship or trust built.”

Several members discussed having several small-group discussions between city/town leadership and front line supervisors to get information distributed to their employees. And some members have discussed having members of their safety committee distribute information to their respective departments.

“Everyone agreed that there needs to be buy-in from the top levels of leadership, because, just as the statistics show, more than 60 percent of employees feel that their employer takes no steps to create a healthy workplace culture,” said Shelton. “It is on organizational leadership to begin the discussions, begin looking at initiatives and outside of the box thinking to create ways to reach out to employees to discuss issues involving mental health resources and reducing the negative stigma around it.”

Participants likened this to an employee with high cholesterol, high blood pressure, a lung issue, cancer or any other health condition that is looked at as normal without negative stigma for an employee getting help. However, with mental health issues many employees are afraid of the perception of them if anyone should find out.

“One member said that they openly share their mental health issues to create an environment where people feel comfortable seeking help,” said Shelton.

From a risk management perspective, focusing on mental health in the workplace makes sense. Shelton shared the following examples during the discussions:

  • A police officer pulls a drunk driver over at 2 a.m. That police officer is having financial problems because their husband was laid off due to COVID-19 and their children are attending class virtually.
  • Many public utility workers may also have the same problems as the police officer; however, they are expected to drive a $250,000 vehicle operated inches away from a 75,000 kilo-volt line.

“Mental health has a direct effect on the risk management programs of any organization,” said Shelton. “We, as a whole, need to do better about communicating exactly what resources are available to employees, explaining exactly what is offered, and giving our employees resources and time to get the help that they may need.”