Employers play an important role in engaging employees in healthy lifestyles, and research shows that employers who invest in the emotional health of their workforce see a return on that investment with improved safety performance. In fact, mental and emotional health, as it relates to worker safety and productivity, is one of the hottest topics being discussed in board rooms, human resource departments and executive offices across industries. 

The recognition that emotional health impacts the likelihood of employee injury has pushed the concept of employee emotional health, or wellness, to the top of the agenda. The emotional well-being of employees is paramount to the success of a business. For example, stress and anxiety can impair decision-making, impact reaction time and ability to recognize a risk or hazard, while also affecting relationships with others. This, in turn, can create more risks and problems in the business. 

Unfortunately, Americans are more stressed than ever. According to the American Institute of Stress, 48% of Americans surveyed say stress has a negative impact on their personal and professional life. In addition, 77% of people regularly experience physical symptoms caused by stress. In fact, a steady diet of stress is responsible for the majority of illnesses and has been linked to such life-threatening conditions as heart disease, cancer, stroke and immune system disorders. Emotional problems like depression, anxiety and insomnia are often traced back to stress. 

Stress, emotional issues and a lack of enthusiasm in the workplace can take a toll on employees – mentally, physically, and emotionally, When employees feel overworked, underappreciated or unchallenged, they enter a constant state of stress and it is reflected in their performance. An employee who is burnt out on the job may have trouble getting along with co-workers, management or even customers. He or she may become apathetic about how they perform their job, moving slowly and sloppily through tasks at which they used to excel. A stressed out or emotionally unwell employee may begin calling in sick on a frequent basis, and contrary to what some may believe, he or she may actually be sick.

And perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind is that stress and emotional turmoil is contagious. It takes just one stressed out, unsatisfied employee or manager to start a stress epidemic in a business. As the burnt out employee or manager begins to complain about the job to others or his/her bad mood affects the moods of other employees, poor attitudes and performance can spread like wildfire, while also increasing the chance for physical injuries while working. What’s more, having a group of apathetic, irritable employees can negatively impact everything from productivity, sales and customer service to a company’s health insurance costs.

Kris Corbett has more than 25 years of experience working in wellness, safety and injury prevention creating innovative and effective products and services for companies looking to achieve sustainable results. 

As Corbett explains, more companies are now using wellness as an injury prevention strategy. “If people are well and healthy, they are less likely to get hurt in the first place,” Corbett says. We need to look at the overall well-being of the workers and that includes physical health and mental health. It needs to not just be about safety advocacy as it relates to keeping people safe in environments. Rather, it is about the overall well-being of the worker which will not only create a culture of caring but will improve morale and overall company performance.  


An evolution of sorts

For many years, focusing on the emotional health of employees simply wasn’t part of the conversation. 

“People felt like it was a private matter and you should take care of that outside of work. But today more people spend more time at work than they do at home,” Corbett says. So when you are thinking about safety and injury prevention, the stress on their mind means their mind is not on the task or the work at hand. They are putting themselves at risk and depending on the work tasks a moment of being inattentive could result in a catastrophic injury or incident,  

Take the construction industry, for example. The emotional health and well-being have come to the forefront because construction has one of the highest suicide rates in the industry. 

“There is often a mentality that men should be able to handle it, put on a happy face and deal with it. Often men think, ‘I’m not supposed to be struggling with this, I should be able to handle this issue’ and they simply don’t get the help that they need, which is one reason this industry is plagued with high suicide rates. Luckily, the construction industry is working hard to break that stigma,” Corbett says. “Construction workers also have very physically demanding jobs that can take a toll on their bodies, often resulting in aches, pains and injuries. If we look at people who are in pain, they often aren’t sleeping well, they may be prescribed opioids or other prescription drugs or maybe they self-medicate with alcohol.”

What’s more, the ever-changing environment of the ongoing COVID pandemic is wreaking havoc to people’s emotional well-being. From evolving mask wearing rules to vaccination protocols to kids engaging in remote learning while parents work is causing significant levels of anxiety and stress. “Then add to that the fear of the disease itself and how it may affect your loved ones if they contract it – all of this is impacting the emotional well-being of today’s workforce,” Corbett says.


Steps to take

Companies across industries are recognizing that emotional health has to be a piece of employee wellness. 

“In fact, someone once told me that everyone should have a therapist, just like we have a dentist or a primary care physician. It is that important that people check in every three months or every six months, just like we would for a dentist. It’s our brain health yet we are not thinking of that the way we would with anything else,” Corbett says.

Luckily the conversation is changing as more and more people are starting to recognize that we all need to feel comfortable saying, “You know what, I’m not feeling well – emotionally.”

“Today’s dialogue is shifting to focus on making sure companies have resources in place for employees to get the help they need,” Corbett says. For example, some companies now have full-time therapists in place to provide employees sessions where they can talk through issues that may be causing anxiety, stress or depression. In addition, companies are starting to emphasize employees should look out for coworkers, helping to recognize the signs and symptoms that they may not be doing well emotionally or mentally. 

Some companies are also encouraging employees to take a mental health assessment, which employers can establish via online programs or with a mental health professional. Once a baseline is set with the mental health assessment, employees can utilize tools such as websites that provide links to coaches and information on topics like stress management, depression and sleep management.

Corbett stresses that focusing on emotional and mental health factors that are not directly related to the work at hand can make a positive impact to your workforce. Wellness plans, for example, can be enacted to focus on overall health awareness and strategies to improve worker well-being – all of which will make a position impact on safety and injury risk.  

In addition, open, honest, respectful communication is key to creating a caring work environment that recognizes when a worker may not be at his or her best. Recognizing when a worker may be struggling especially when a work task could potentially be risky or dangerous is essential to recognizing a potential risk. Create an open environment in which employees can always talk with a manager if they have any issues, whether it be that they are overworked, are having trouble getting along with a fellow employee, etc. Employees need to know that they have someone they can trust to listen and help sort out their problems before their performance is compromised by workplace issues.

“It’s okay to raise your hand and say, ‘I need help’ or ‘I’m afraid I will put myself or others at risk,’” Corbett says. “It’s helpful when we are seeing so many people in the public eye, specifically professional athletes talking about their struggles and the importance of how mental health can affect performance while also trying to get rid of the stigma that people who are at their top of their game should not be struggling. The pandemic also has added to the stress we all have been faced with and I believe it will help to keep mental health in the forefront and bring resources to our communities, schools and workplaces all of which will strive to bring attention to this important topic.” 


Kris Corbett, Director, Atlas Injury Prevention Solutions, http://www.atlas-ips.com, has over 25 years of experience in injury prevention and wellness, creating innovative and effective strategies for companies or projects looking to achieve a more productive, healthy, and injury-free workforce. Kris' unique expertise in mindfulness and behavioral change methodology has been blended into strategies to provide high levels of engagement and injury reduction.