A structured approach is recommended when managing health and safety risks, with elimination of the hazard (ie. the potential cause of harm) being the preferred and most effective approach, and with the protection of the person (eg. through personal protective equipment (PPE)) the least preferred and least effective method. Yet when it comes to workplace mental health, many employers take the opposite approach. Why is this? Why do many employers start with mindfulness, resilience and first aid, which are all person-centred, contradicting the principles of risk management?
In physical health and safety management terms, the hierarchy of controls is applied when controlling risks. This internationally recognised hierarchical approach is a bedrock of health and safety. And it should be applied to workplace mental health in the same way it is applied to workplace physical health.
The hierarchy of controls requires employers to start by addressing the causes of potential harm, as opposed to starting by protecting the person who may be harmed.
A person-centred approach has its place. But in employment and risk-management terms, it should be the last step when applying risk control measures, not the first.
A person-centred approach may be an employer’s first step for a variety of reasons, including:
Healthcare approach – A person-centred approach is used in public mental healthcare services. It is understandable this approach comes to the minds of some employers. So, why not use it in the workplace? Simply put, at home, each adult is largely responsible for themselves. At work, employers are responsible for their employees. The obligations are very different. Additionally, the employer may be the cause of mental harm or may be exacerbating an existing condition. Employers should minimise the effects of mental harm they cause or exacerbate through hazard control, as opposed to a healthcare approach which often starts with the treating of symptoms.
Lack of promotion – Leaders may not know just what approach to take when contemplating how to manage workplace mental health. They will, to some extent, be influenced by service providers promoting services to them. A minority of service providers know of or offer a risk-based approach. Most services providers offer person-centred services, reinforcing the use of this approach in the minds of employers.
Convenience – Many employers want to do something to manage mental health. Training might appear an obvious and convenient solution. It’s easy to arrange, easy to implement, low cost and high profile. Only, most training does not focus on risk management. The convenience of training may be distracting some leaders, causing them to forget about risk management and the principle of an elimination-first approach.
Technical ambiguity – Workplace mental health management may require a degree of technical knowledge related to health and safety, employment law (usually held by the human resources dept.), occupational health, as well as specialist knowledge about workplace mental health itself. Certainly, all three of these traditional support functions may play a role in managing mental health at work. Possibly dependent upon the employer’s industry, the employer may arrange for one of these support functions to take the lead on mental health, potentially leading to a bias in the emphasis of any approach. In low-risk working environments, the human resources function may take the lead on mental health. Yet human resources managers may not understand the principles of risk management, so may not take a traditional risk-based, elimination-first approach.
Deniability – No leader wants to have to admit organisational activities are having a detrimental effect on the mental health of its employees. If mental health risks are to be identified then eliminated or reduced, the employer is required to reflect on the working conditions it is creating for its employees. A high workload, bullying and poorly managed change are all recognised causes of poor mental health at work, all of which are the responsibility of the employer. Employers may be reluctant to admit these issues are the cause of mental health problems. All the time these conditions remain obscured, the employer can deny knowledge and culpability, whilst at the same time they might organise training in an attempt to show willing.
Perhaps these and other reasons explain why organisational leaders often don’t employ traditional risk management methods. Until employers utilise internationally recognised risk management methods when managing workplace mental health employees will continue to suffer as an employer’s investment in training, such as mindfulness, does nothing to eliminate or reduce the actual causes of mental harm.