Is psychological health the frontier of modern employee productivity?
Psychological Health

Is psychological health the frontier of modern employee productivity?
How a poor work environment can be the trigger for genetic predispositions

December 16, 2020

Mental Health in the workplace

Businesses are evolving their employee mental health strategies to look at the workplace factors that contribute to poor mental health of employees. Much of the focus previously was on strategies to improve stress management and coping skills of employees.

The problem with this approach seems obvious, propping people up with these skills, only to send them back into a work environment that is psychologically challenging, or possibly traumatising, is not the best solution. You want the best of both worlds – resilient employees, in a psychologically safe work environment.

As a result, we now have a new concept – the PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY CLIMATE or PSC of an organisation.

What is the Psychological Safety Climate?

The PSC is a measure of how toxic the work environment is in relation to the mental health of employees.

As the model below demonstrates, multiple factors determine the PSC of an organisation¹.

PSC

PSC, therefore, covers high level issues such as management, commitment and support, usually in the form of the three “P’s” – Policies, Practices and Procedures, but also the balance between job demands and resources. High job demands are manageable with adequate resources, but even low-level demands can be perceived as stressful if there’s woefully inadequate support and resources to do the job.

The Individual in the Environment – IxE

Geneticists use the term GxE to describe the interaction of genes with the environment. In genetics, a common quip is, "the genes may load the gun, but the environment pulls the trigger”.

What this means is that an individual with a genetic predisposition to say type 2 diabetes, probably won’t develop it without significant weight gain. Likewise, the red haired, fair skinned individual who is genetically predisposed to skin cancer, can avoid it, or at least minimise the risk, by using the basic preventative strategies.

IxE is the business application of GxE. From the perspective of mental health in the workplace, the worst outcomes are clearly going to occur when 'susceptible' individuals end up in a workplace with a poor PSC – the gun is loaded (susceptible individual), the workplace pulls the trigger. The result … productivity losses that globally amount to over US$1,000,000,000,000 (yes, one trillion US dollars per annum)².

Facing the problem head-on

We can see why the battle to improve mental health outcomes in the workplace needs to be fought on two fronts, the 'I' front, whereby we support individuals to develop appropriate coping skills and positive psychological traits, and the 'E' front, where management and employees work to ensure the workplace does not become the trigger.

The SHAPE Survey includes questions relating to 22 aspects relating to mental health in the work environment. We use these to create a PSC score for the workplace, the PSC-22.

The PSC-22 looks at various elements of corporate culture, bullying and harassment, care, control, resources, job fit, work-life balance, conflict, management style, security and work relationships. The score provides an excellent assessment of how employees perceive the toxicity of the work environment, and allows drill down into the various elements, as well as the demographics to determine which groups are at risk and why. From here, targeted strategies can be developed to shift the work environment to a more benign footing, and ideally into one that enhances mental health.

This latter point is important. The workplace generally should, and does, have a positive influence on both physical and mental health, but only because the comparison groups are unemployed, which brings its own special set of stressors.

SHAPE also provides a measure of the psychological health of employees, with a special subset of this devoted to resilience. We can therefore cover, in some detail, the 'I'and the 'E'.


¹"Key Work Health And Safety Statistics Australia 2017". 2017. Safeworkaustralia.Gov.Au.

²"Mental Health In The Workplace". 2019. World Health Organization.

Psychological Health
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