Mental Health in the Workplace: Building on Change

Mental health and employee well-being are important aspects of workplace safety and health, and more and more workplaces are elevating the topic to the same level as physical safety. What used to be an undiscussable topic in the workplace is now receiving front and center attention by agencies like OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration).  Let’s first take a look at what has led to this shift, because that can help develop approaches for elevating mental health in our own workplaces.  We then look at practical actions, and take a closer look at workplace violence.

Shifting Perspectives on Mental Health – Why Now?

OSHA was established in 1970 under the Occupational Safety and Health Act. For many decades, OSHA focused on physical safety and health and not as much on mental health. There are many reasons for this.

  • Initial Focus on Physical Hazards: When OSHA was founded, the primary focus was on addressing immediate and tangible workplace hazards, such as worker exposure to toxic substances, dangerous machinery and unsafe working conditions. These physical hazards posed clear and present dangers requiring urgent attention. Physical risks and accidents were seen as more pressing than psychological well-being. Over time, these needs have shifted.
  • Measurement Challenges: Agencies and organizations need to show the return on investment for programs, and physical hazards and accident prevention measures are often easier to quantify and measure. Exposure to chemicals can be measured in parts per million, and machine safety can be assessed by mechanical standards. Mental health, on the other hand, is subjective and harder to quantify with the same precision.
  • Regulatory Complexity: Organizations provide products and services – and tend to focus on mission-critical functions first. Given this, compliance programs are often shaped around meeting regulatory requirements. Developing regulations for mental health issues is complex, due to the diverse and multifaceted nature of mental health. It involves understanding a wide range of psychological factors, which can vary greatly between people and are influenced by many variables outside the workplace.
  • Mental Health Stigma: Historically, mental health issues were stigmatized – this is still the case in some workplaces. In this environment, employees and supervisors were less likely to discuss or disclose mental health problems due to fear of discrimination or job loss. For many years, mental health was not widely recognized as a significant factor influencing employee well-being and organizational success.


So why is the workplace evolving now? This shift reflects broader societal changes, research advances, and a more complete approach to occupational health and safety. This shift has also been driven by legislative developments. Employers need to increasingly focus on accommodating mental health conditions in the workplace, as well as physical needs. These legislative changes have emerged from shifting societal attitudes toward mental health, with a greater emphasis on awareness and advocacy. More organizations are also recognizing how discrimination and unconscious bias can impact mental health. This has influenced workplace policies and practices.

Six Steps to Support Mental Health

Mentally healthy employees are more productive, engaged and efficient. Understanding current shifts in attitudes towards mental health helps us advance overall workplace safety and employee well-being. Given these changes in awareness and acceptance, the time is right to consider your own actions.  Each of us can to create a positive, productive and inclusive environment. Here are several steps you can take to support mental health in your workplace:

Acknowledge, Create Awareness, and Reduce Stigma – More and more, managers are talking about their own mental health, making it a more acceptable discussion with others. Group training sessions can help provide a common language for talking about mental health issues. Some organizations even have employee-led meditation and stretching sessions. Providing a consistently safe environment, and avoiding disparaging comments (like minimizing post traumatic stress disorder by using the term too loosely) can go a long way to building trust over time.

Provide and Publicize Resources and Support – Today, many organizations offer Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), which provide access to professional mental health services and counseling. Insurance plans are also increasingly covering counseling and therapy services. Don’t keep these resources a secret!  Be open and matter-of-fact about the availability and practical usefulness of these services.

Encourage Work-Life Balance – Employees tend to feel more empowered, with a greater sense of control and confidence, when they have manageable workloads and reasonable deadlines. This doesn’t mean everything is relaxed and easy – some level of challenge and stress actually supports engagement. When things start to feel overwhelming and futile, though, steps are needed to prevent burnout.

Create a Healthy Work Environment – Office-centric workplaces can support mental health by providing natural light, plants, and comfortable areas for relaxation. Consider posting information about nearby gyms or other recreational activities.  For hybrid or remote workplaces, your work environment may be more online – and needs special cultivation.  This may mean more virtual social hours and activities that allow people to invite their families to join. Engagement committees and employee-led peer-to-peer support or affinity groups can also build a positive social environment.

Training and Development – Supervisors may be nervous about discussing mental health with their employees.  Formal training can help managers recognize signs of mental health issues and respond appropriately.  Offering professional development programs like mentoring, coaching, and training can also help employees learn and grow, which can improve job satisfaction and mental health.

Regular Check-Ins and Feedback – Conducting regular formal and informal check-ins with employees is important for building the trust needed to share more personal information, like mental health concerns. When there is already a relationship, these conversations are much easier.

These actions are concrete ways to create a supportive environment that prioritizes mental health, leading to a happier, healthier and more productive workforce.

Workplace Violence: Recognizing and Acting

Mental health is closely linked to workplace violence, harassment and bullying. OSHA’s General Duty Clause requires employers to provide a workplace free from hazards, which includes psychological hazards. The agency’s regulations on workplace violence prevention underscore the importance of addressing mental health to create a safe work environment. Employers have a legal and ethical duty to provide a safe workplace. This includes managing factors that can negatively impact mental health, such as excessive stress, bullying or unsafe working conditions.

Recognizing the warning signs of workplace violence can help prevent incidents and maintain a safe work environment. Here are some of those signs:

  • Behavioral Changes: Sudden increase in aggressive behavior, outbursts or dramatic mood changes, including extreme irritability or sadness. Excessive suspicion or distrust of others. Making direct or indirect threats towards coworkers, supervisors or the organization. Expressing feelings of hopelessness, helplessness or a lack of purpose.
  • Social Isolation: Suddenly isolating themselves from coworkers, avoiding social interactions and showing a lack of interest in team activities. Sudden and significant changes in relationships with coworkers or supervisors.
  • Performance Issues: Noticeable decline in work quality or productivity, or frequent absences or tardiness without a clear reason. Involvement in ongoing conflicts or disputes with coworkers or supervisors.
  • Signs of Personal Stress: Signs of severe personal issues, such as financial troubles, family conflicts, or substance abuse. Displaying signs of mental health struggles, such as depression, anxiety or excessive stress. Mentioning thoughts of self-harm or suicide.
  • Unusual or Suspicious Behavior: Overreacting to minor issues or changes in the workplace. Acting secretive, or showing unusual behaviors that raise concern among coworkers.
  • Obsession with Weapons or Violence: Frequently talking about weapons, violent incidents, or showing an unusual fascination with them. Excessively consuming or sharing content related to violence.

Here are four key steps if you notice warning signs in your workplace:

  1. Report Concerns: Notify Human Resources or a safety officer about your concerns.
  2. Document Behavior: Keep records about the concerning behaviors and incidents.
  3. Avoid Confrontation: Do not confront the individual directly; instead, seek help.
  4. Seek Professional Help: Involve security or law enforcement if there is an immediate threat.

Case Study: California Rule on Workplace Violence

Earlier in this article, we noted that regulations are shifting with respect to mental health.  As an example, to compel businesses to take prevention and response programs seriously, California  enacted SB 553, a rule addressing Workplace Violence Prevention. The rule requires certain employers to develop and implement comprehensive workplace violence prevention plans. While specific to California, it provides a good roadmap for thinking about workplace violence in your organization.

The law applies to a wide range of employers, particularly those in industries with a higher risk of workplace violence, such as healthcare, social services and retail organizations. Here are the components of the rule, which can help inform actions anywhere.

  • Planning and Training: Employers are required to develop a detailed Workplace Violence Prevention Plan (WVPP). It needs to be tailored to the specific risks and needs of the workplace and includes the following components: hazard assessment, violence prevention procedures, employee training and incident reporting and investigation systems.
  • Employee Involvement: Employees need to be involved in the development, implementation and review of the WVPP. Employers are encouraged to create joint labor-management committees to collaboratively address workplace violence issues.
  • Recordkeeping and Reporting: Employers must maintain records of workplace violence incidents and the measures taken to address them. Regular reporting to the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) on incidents and preventative actions is required.
  • Enforcement and Penalties: The state government is responsible for enforcing SB 553 and may conduct inspections and investigations to ensure compliance. Employers found in violation of the requirements may face penalties and must take corrective actions.

Again, while these steps may be specific to the California rule, they are actions that any organization to take to create safer work environments and better manage the risk of workplace violence.

Building Resilience Through Self-Development

Mental health is greatly supported by personal development and self-awareness – to help you better manage stress and make decisions that support your health. Pryor offers a number of courses and self-guided learning options to help you build resilience and be at your best. Our training offerings range from short videos to full-day in-person seminars to on-line webinars depending on your learning style and availability.  Here are some good examples:

Are you part of helping your organization meet OSHA requirements?  In addition to safety and health related resources and seminars, Pryor Learning offers OSHA 10 and 30 Hour Online Training, allowing you to obtain your 10 or 30 hour OSHA card through our partnership with HSI. HSI is the top OSHA-authorized online training provider with years of experience and dedication offering OSHA-related training.