John Marsh, Chairperson
As the end of the year is nearly upon us and we can finally say good riddance to 2020 and with the first people now receiving the COVID vaccine we can now see light at the end of the tunnel.
Due to the availability of the new vaccine and the strategic challenges that the government faces in vaccinating the entire population, there will still be a need for the current restrictions to remain in place throughout the majority of 2021. Health and safety professionals and safety reps have also been faced with their own challenges ensuring the health and wellbeing of workers from all industries, supporting key-workers who have continued to support those who were vulnerable, isolating or working from home. Key-workers like the bus driver, the supermarket employee, utility worker and all those other trades and workers that we rely on have continued to support the country in these desperate times.
Christmas for many is a time for celebration and spending time with our family and friends but this year we know that for the majority this is not going to be the case. This time of year, some people find it stressful for lots of reasons and there is no doubt that the pandemic will have an additional impact on their mental health. Loneliness, the loss of a relative, financial worries, loss of income, family life, work pressures etc, can all have an impact on anybody’s mental health at any time of the year but Christmas can amplify the stress and worry that someone may be living with on a daily basis. Many of us have experienced times that we have found it really stressful, like planning a wedding, moving to a new house, going to a job interview or planning a funeral, but ultimately managed to overcome worrying times. For some people who experience stress and depression it may only last for a few months with expert support, but for many people suffering with a mental illness becomes a daily battle that may last for years or even a lifetime.
The World Health Organization defines mental health as: “… a state of wellbeing in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community. Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” (World Health Organization 2014).
Mental health is no longer the taboo subject that no one talks about and is being pushed up the agenda for most organisations and discussed more widely with a company’s employees. But there is still a lot of discrimination and stigma around mental ill health and with increasing levels of stress in the workplace and from the current pandemic, it is now more important that employers establish a support network that provides resources and guidance for both those employees with mental health problems and for health and safety reps. Safety reps are playing a vital role in raising the awareness of mental health in the workplace and supporting workers who are sometimes just desperate just to have someone to talk to and assist them in getting the support they need.
But we find ourselves in clearly unprecedented times and a large proportion of the UK workforce is now working from home and may not be able to access their usual support network or occupation health team. Employers still have a duty of care for its home workers because working from home needs to be risk assessed but also recognising that it can cause workers stress and mental health problems working in isolation, without the correct IT or DSE equipment or working off the kitchen table or the arm of a sofa.
More and more people are opening up about their struggles with mental health and we have all heard of the saying ‘it’s good to talk’, but there is still so much more that needs to be done in the workplace and society. From a health and safety perspective its wrong for employers to describe mental health as the new bad back and just another excuse for people to have time off work. The workplace has changed dramatically over the decades and with it has come a host of additional risks to our health and safety that are potentially having more of an impact on our daily lives.
For too long work design has concentrated on the physical risks and failed to consider the health and wellbeing of the individual carrying out the task. Simply just carrying out a risk assessment that doesn’t consider the mental health of the individual carrying out the task is a management failure. Worker involvement is in an employer’s best interest and designing the job in conjunction with the employee and safety rep will reap benefits in the long term. Just instructing an employee to just carryout a task that they are not happy with will only result in them putting themselves at risk due to an increase in their stress levels and a lack of concentration. So just asking someone to work from home without any support or regular contact from management may be putting due stress on individuals that might be feeling neglected, undervalued and isolated from their colleagues and missing working from a suitable office environment.
We must not fail to recognise that at some point in our lives that most of us will experience stress and depression and we can’t think that we are going to be immune. In my view health and safety reps have always been key-workers supporting their colleagues but unfortunately, they often neglect their own health and wellbeing. Safety reps do a fantastic job but with it comes a lot of pressure and stress carrying out the role, the day job and life outside of work. I am guilty when it comes to providing support for my work colleagues but also guilty of not asking for support when I desperately needed it.
I have had my own demons to deal over the past few years and have experienced family members suffering with mental illness. Asking for help is the hardest step and for so long I felt embarrassed and scared to ask for help because of what other people may say or think, probably because of the health, safety and wellbeing role that I do. Even though I knew that within my own organisation they had the resources and support at my disposal to help any employee, I just did not want them to know.
One thing that you are not aware of when you become a workplace rep is that although there are many highs there are also many lows and when the lows outnumber the highs then things can quickly start to fall apart.
Whether it’s health and safety or mental health, workplace reps provide the support network for so many of their fellow workers and are doing a fantastic job raising mental health up the agenda, and encouraging more people to take the subject more seriously and stop the discrimination and victimisation experienced by some of our fellow workers suffering with a mental illness. But most importantly, workplace reps need to practice what they preach and not be afraid to ask for support.