OHS Canada Magazine

Navigating psychological well-being: Lessons from fish tank maintenance

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August 28, 2023
By Bill Howatt

Human Resources Mental Health Psychological Safety

Photo: Adobe Stock

Investing money in psychological health and safety can have a dramatic, positive impact on protecting workers from mental harm and promoting mental health. Employers who want to ensure psychological health and safety is being done correctly can learn what needs to be done through the lens of fish tank maintenance.

Whether you have ever owned a fish tank or not, consider the following challenge and respond accordingly. You come home to find all your fish dead and your tank water green. Do you remove the dead fish and put new fish in, or clean the tank, check the water, clean the filter, and add new fish? The right choice is the second option.

The key to a good fish tank experience is a clean tank and healthy fish. The water should be tested, the tank cleaned regularly, and fish nutrition managed.

If you understand the fish tank example, you can understand what must be done to reduce mental harm and promote mental health and that the environment matters. Regarding psychological health and safety, psychosocial factors can be positive chargers or negative drains for a workforce.

A workplace mental health program’s success requires improving the environment and allowing workers to learn and acquire skills and support to promote their mental health.


Avoid the big psychological health and safety miss

Confusing activity with impact is the big miss that happens too often in workplace mental health initiatives. For example, sending workers to resiliency training to cope with stress seldom helps if their stress increases and sick time and disability costs rise.

Why? The training is often one-and-done and does not provide a pathway for learning and accountability, such as emotional regulation to create habits that increase workers’ ability to cope with stress. This initiative does nothing to get to the root cause.

Employers must understand that programs do not create habits. Programs provide information and opportunity. Too many workplaces’ approaches to mental health are to buy programs, hoping they will mysteriously create a thriving workplace. Though many programs are helpful, without a planned, integrated approach that considers the environment and individuals, the desired habits, results, and impact seldom result.

How to create a psychologically safe workplace

Creating a psychologically safe workplace begins with understanding the goal is to create more positive than negative emotions. The more time a workforce enjoys positive emotions, the more likely they will flourish. This also creates more opportunities for the organization to maximize its potential and mitigate risks and costs associated with workplace mental health issues such as STD, LTD, and WCB claims, turnover, and sick time.

The following three steps are akin to an approach often used for fish tank maintenance:

Discover — Get the data about how workers are doing regarding workplace experience; avoid guessing. Data can be collected through qualitative surveys, interviews, and focus groups. The goal is to understand what psychosocial factors are charging and draining the employee experience. For example, if work demand is perceived as appropriate and fair, it brings purpose to workers as a charge that promotes positive emotions. When work feels overwhelming, confusing, and stressful, it is a drain that creates negative emotions. The discovery must be done through an inclusive lens, factoring in differences and assuming that not all workers have the same experiences. ISO 4503 provides guidance on the psychosocial factors that can positively or negatively impact the employee experience. The discovery process must consider how current programs and policies are perceived and their value.

Design and Direction — Determine what factors can be improved and what key performance indicators would be enhanced. The design should leverage the fish tank scenario. When dealing with issues like work demand, the solution with the most impact will facilitate two-way accountability. For example, a workplace redesign would examine how work is organized and prioritized, how much time workers spend doing ad hoc versus core work, and streamlining and removing useless meetings and emails. Provide training on being psychologically safe leaders that allow workers to share their concerns without fear, and offer workers resiliency training to cope better with stress and self-advocate. Ensure the focus is on creating new habits. Information is useless if it does not lead to habits that achieve the desired KPIs.

Determination — Measure the initiatives’ success by engaging employees in an evaluation process to check in on their experience. Adopt a plan-do-check-act approach to ensure workers develop the habits that maximize the opportunity to protect and promote mental health. There are no shortcuts. Psychological health and safety requires constant vigilance, attention, focus, and maintenance to prevent habits that do not promote positive emotions.

Dr. Bill Howatt is the Ottawa-based president of Howatt HR Consulting.


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