Improving Mental Health in the Industrial Workplace

(Article by Kristin Manganello originally appeared in ThomasNet)

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. To recognize the importance of mental health, Thomas Insights is exploring its impact on the industrial workplace and how companies can improve their employees’ mental health.

If a worker has the flu or breaks a limb, nobody calls into question the validity of their ailment. Health issues like these are visible and are easily recognizable by employers and fellow colleagues. Mental health issues, on the other hand, are largely invisible and often go unaddressed in the industrial workplace.

However, mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and substance abuse can seriously impact how employees function within their industrial work environment. Not only are these workers suffering in silence, but their job performance can also suffer in terms of productivity, attendance, and professional impacts. In fact, according to a benchmark research report from Gallup in 2013, lack of engagement and support in the workplace can potentially result in an annual loss of $450 to $550 billion.

Addressing Mental Health in the Manufacturing Industry

In 2017, Mental Health America published the results of an extensive research project that analyzed the mental health scores of 19 industries within the U.S. Manufacturing ranked within the bottom 10% of industries with a subpar mental health score.

A Psychiatric Perspective

“Manufacturing employees face a unique combination of pressures that can contribute to high levels of stress, anxiety, and other mental health issues,” says Dr. Laura Hamill, an industrial and organizational psychologist and chief science officer of Limeade, a software platform for improving employee experience and engagement.

“Their success is determined by productivity, efficiency, and output, requiring long hours and shift-based schedules that allow little if any time for flexibility or recovery. These jobs also tend to be physically demanding, repetitive, and even dangerous,” she tells Thomas. “This makes safety a top concern, and rightly so, but the combined pressures of productivity and safety can feel at odds and put undue pressure on individual workers.”

Safety concerns aside, the nature of repetitive work can also contribute to mental health issues.

“Modern production methods mean that people perform large volumes of uncomplicated tasks over and over again,” says Dr. Russell Thackeray, a workplace psychologist. According to Dr. Thackeray, these repetitive tasks can result in “boredom, stress, and physical issues.” Furthermore, “excessive noise, lack of sufficient daylight, or the opportunity for social interaction” can also add to industrial workplace anxiety.

Not only do employees within the manufacturing world face a unique combination of physical and mental stressors, but they are also harder to reach via corporate outreach initiatives.

“These employees tend to feel disconnected from their company outside of their immediate team,” explains Dr. Hamill. “For example, most corporate communications programs and resources are delivered online. Line workers [do not typically] have access to computers during the day and the last thing they want to do when they get home is dig through their corporate email inbox or intranet system.”

All of these factors combined can result in emotional and mental challenges. “This impacts what’s known as self-actualization,” says James Cobb, a registered emergency room nurse with a background in manufacturing. “Humans have a need to feel like they’re realizing their full potential. These aspects of a manufacturing career directly impact an individual’s ability to achieve this upper-level need.”

What Manufacturing Companies Can Do to Improve Employee Mental Health

A 2014 survey from the Center for Workplace Mental Health, a branch of the American Psychiatric Association Foundation, revealed that one in four workers in the U.S. has been diagnosed with depression. While the high levels of mental health issues within the manufacturing industry are indeed staggering, the situation is not without hope. There are many initiatives that companies can launch to reach out to, engage with, and support their employees – some of which can be implemented immediately.

According to Dr. Hamill, many pragmatic solutions to the issue center on the concept of employees “feeling like their company cares about them as an individual.” She goes on to point out that employees who feel valued by their companies in this way “have higher well-being, feel more engaged, and are more likely to stay with their company.”

Cultivating a mental health plan for your employees requires both short and long term actions, and can be as simple as recognizing their efforts, asking them for feedback, and openly celebrating their achievements and hard work. Small daily assurances can transform an industrial workplace’s culture dramatically.

It’s also important to keep in mind that industrial workers have full lives outside of the job, and any mental health initiative you take should reflect that.

“Deliver a whole-person well-being program,” suggests Dr. Hamill. “Mental health is critical for manufacturing employees, but it’s inextricably connected to other areas of well-being like financial, physical, and work well-being.

“Make sure you’re giving employees opportunities to improve in the areas that matter to them,” she explains.

EAP’s and Collaborative Care Healthcare

While there will always be stress factors beyond management’s control, industrial companies can focus on in-house factors and provide employees with things like employee assistance programs (EAPs).

Designed to help workers deal with the various stressors in their lives, including professional concerns, personal relationship challenges, and financial worries, EAPs offer services such as short-term, solution-focused counseling and referrals for further treatment.

Companies can also consider adopting or modifying a health plan to include a Collaborative Care Model, a holistic approach to healthcare that integrates medical and mental health in a primary care setting.

Mental Health Best Practices

There are also day-to-day solutions that companies can implement – Dr. Thackeray recommends that managers ensure that “there is time for rest and renewal. This should include work rotation, creation of improvement ideas from the team, access to therapy if needed, and breaks away from the work environment, if possible.”

However, with busy production schedules, this is not always possible. Dr. Hamill suggests giving workers “resources on positive self-talk, home workouts, or stretches they can do in five minutes or less. Target employees with solutions that can work for them in the time that they have.”

Ultimately, managers play a significant role in workplace mental health. “In manufacturing settings, managers and supervisors call the shots, so use them as vehicles for your good intentions,” says Dr. Hamill. “This means educating them on how mental health contributes to their end-goals like productivity and safety. Then give them tangible tips for talking to employees about their well-being. It can be as simple as starting a meeting by asking ‘how are you, really’ and taking time to listen to their answer.”

Connecting Employees with the Big Picture

According to Dr. Thackeray, “The relentlessness of the work coming ‘down the production line’ can lead to a perspective that the work is never-ending. Some people at the ‘finishing’ end of a process suffer less of this – but helping people understand their part in the total process is important.”

One of the best ways to engage employees, support their mental wellbeing, and empower them is to make sure they understand their role in the overall process of what the company accomplishes. “Show them the impact their work has on real human beings,” says Dr. Hamill. “No matter what is being manufactured, showing real human beings using your products and sharing the collective impact can help employees see the difference they are making and how they’re individually contributing.”