Managing Stress In The OHS Industry


As part of my Coaching business, I recently had the privilege of working with the team at Safety Wise and their CEO Luke Dam to create content designed to assist incident investigation and safety professionals with managing the high level of stress involved in their vitally important work.

The following is an article that was created as part of this process. While the focus of the article is managing stress in this specific industry, most of the concepts and strategies covered are applicable in all stressful work environments, and I believe they contain information that is useful to a wide range of industries and professions.

It was my first “serious” job. I was the Quality Manager for an import, sales and distribution business that had a fabrication department that cut, packaged and processed materials for off-the-shelf products and customer orders. Part of my responsibility was overseeing Occupational Health and Safety and being a registered First Aider.

I can remember it like it was yesterday. ““Sam” has cut off the top of her finger”. (I have changed the ladies’ name in order to preserve her identity.) My heart raced, as my First Aid training kicked in and I looked after Sam to the best of my ability and made sure she received the medical attention she needed.

This incident happened decades ago, yet it is etched in my memory like it happened yesterday. Why is this?

It’s because events that carry the most emotion, are the events that impact us the most. They are the events that are etched in our minds and memories and that can have large ripple effects on our wellbeing long after the event.

Safety professionals and incident investigators deal with incidents that have a great deal more gravity than the incident with Sam. They examine the event in detail, looking at every aspect of events, environment, equipment, process, and so on, along with talking with people associated with the incident or associated with the people involved. As part of the performance of their role, they are being exposed to highly emotionally charged and stressful environments, situations and content, where they can quite literally be dealing with life and death, severe injury and enormous outcomes bearing on the results of the investigations.

So this begs the question – If a less severe incident, like the event I was involved in with Sam, is etched in my mind decades after it occurred – what is the effect on Health and Safety Professionals and Incident Investigators who are exposed to grave events and who examine them in detail as part of their role?

I’m sure there is an element of professional emotional objectivity that occurs, where the investigator “steps back” from the situation and examine the incident with emotional distance, but I believe that we need to be conscious of the health and safety and wellbeing of the individuals who are exposed to the most graphic and severe incidents as part of performing their vitally important role, and to assist them with maintaining their mental health.

HOW CAN THE EFFECTS SHOW UP?

It’s important to understand the degrees and forms of issues that exposure to these situations can bring up. The following is an outline of the main conditions and effects that can arise from exposure to traumatic, emotionally charged or stressful work situations.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

PTSD is a condition that can develop in individuals who have been exposed to or who have personally experienced traumatic events. Common signs and symptoms can include: nightmares and/or insomnia, flashbacks, hypervigilance, agitation or irritability, self-destructive behaviours, social isolation, emotional detachment, depression and/or anxiety and heightened reaction to triggering events or situations and loss of interest in activities that used to be pleasurable.

According to Sane Australia - about 12% of people living in Australia will experience PTSD in their lifetime and about 25% of people who are exposed to traumatic events develop PTSD.

The Australian Government Safety and Compensation Council lists PTSD as one of the four mental disorders that can be attributed to workplace stress.

The American Psychiatric Association states that certain professions are much more susceptible to developing PTSD and states that PTSD among military personnel may be as high as 34%, and 19% of Police Officers.

Psychological Burnout

Psychological Burnout is a condition where individuals reach a point of emotional exhaustion. It generally results where individuals are working under increasing pressure and is particularly prevalent when the pressure and work is related to helping others. Its symptoms can include cynicism, depression and lethargy, and people experiencing Psychological Burnout will often report feeling a lack of accomplishment, an overload of work and exhaustion.

The irony of Burnout is that it generally occurs with the best and most dedicated employees, because they are generally the people who have given their total effort to performing their job well, but who are finding that their efforts are making little impact and they have little control over how their job is being carried out.

The Australian Government Safety and Compensation Council lists Burnout as one of the four mental disorders that can be attributed to workplace stress.

As stated above, it is particularly prevalent in professions that involve helping others. As an example of this - the American Psychiatric Association states that 43.9% of Doctors in the USA experience burnout.

Workplace Stress

Workplace stress is extremely common. However, the most important distinction is between what is short-term stress or stress that can be managed by the individual with few negative effects, versus prolonged stress or stress that can have other resulting conditions such as Burnout, Depression, Anxiety, sleep disturbances, gastrointestinal upsets or fatigue.

Prolonged or more serious workplace stress occurs when there is a significant mismatch between the individual’s capabilities, the requirements of the role, the resources available to perform the role and the support available when needed. Factors such as long hours, heavy workload, job insecurity and workplace conflicts are significant factors in workplace stress.

According to Safe Work Australia – 92% of serious work-related mental health condition claims are attributed to work related stress, and from 2012 to 2017 an average of 7140 Australians per year were compensated for work related mental health conditions.

WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT THIS?

For both the individual affected and the organisations and other individuals involved, there is a trap in “not noticing” the effects until they build to the point where there is a major impact on both the individual affected and on the organisation. It is common that we “soldier on” and keep performing our work to the best of our ability and not address the growing signs, symptoms and effects until the point where our ability to function in both our work and/or our personal lives is severely affected.

I believe that this pattern is linked to a common human tendency for people to see any struggling in themselves as a weakness. We commonly don’t want to admit that we are struggling or being adversely affected by the situations we face as part of our jobs because we don’t want to be seen as having less capability, and we don’t want others to question our ability, or even to question our own ability.

Please hear me now when I say that being affected by exposure to traumatic, emotionally charged or stressful situations is not a weakness – it’s a sign that you are human and are capable of the empathy needed to perform any job that involves dealing with emotionally charged situations.

I am a firm believer in acknowledging, managing, preventing (where possible) and addressing the effects on the individual of exposure to traumatic, emotionally charged and stressful work situations, with the aim of ensuring that the effects on the individual are minimised and don’t escalate to the point where one of the above mentioned conditions develop or where it effects the individual’s ability to perform their role or to have a happy well balanced situation in their life outside of their work.

The fact is, there are actions that both the individual and the organisations can take to manage or lessen the effects on both the individual and the organisation, so that the wellbeing of the individual is enhanced and supported and so that any adverse effects on the organisation are minimised.

WHAT CAN INDIVIDUALS DO TO MANAGE THEIR OWN WORKPLACE STRESS AND TO DRAMATICALLY REDUCE THE NEGATIVE EFFECTS ON THE REST OF THEIR LIVES AND THEIR WELLBEING?

There are two basic categories of practices that individuals can adopt to enhance and improve their own wellbeing: Self-Care Practices and Self-Management Practices.

SELF-CARE PRACTICES

Many of the self-care practices that I have stated here are often heard about. They are known as fantastic and hugely beneficial to our wellbeing. Yet many people don’t instil them into the way they live their lives. I would strongly encourage you to adopt the following practices, especially the practices that truly resonate with you. They can make an enormous difference to your general state of mind and how you deal with the challenges of life.

Sleep - The average person needs 7 – 9 hours’ sleep per night to function properly throughout the day, but this does vary between individuals.

Rest & Relaxation – Having time to do the things that relax you and that you enjoy can make an enormous difference to your wellbeing.

Exercise – Exercise can vary enormously from very gentle activities (such as walking), to very cardio intensive exercises or heavy weight training. It has been well documented that exercise has enormous benefits both physically and mentally. Additionally, certain exercises (such as Yoga, Tai Chi or Qigong) have been shown to have an enormous benefit in reducing the effects of stress.

Healthy Diet – There are an enormous range of opinions regarding what constitutes a healthy diet. I am a huge supporter of the Keto diet and have personally found the health benefits to be enormous. However, as a rule of thumb, whether you follow Keto or any other eating plan, I would strongly advise you to heavily restrict processed / low nutritional value foods, greatly reduce or cut out sugar, and to base your diet wherever possible on natural unprocessed foods.

Meditation – Meditation can be enormously powerful in assisting with mental clarity, calmness and your general mental wellbeing. Many people try meditation, struggle with the concept of “clear your mind”, conclude that they can’t meditate and never try it again. In my personal opinion, clearing your mind is impossible (at least it has been for me and for many others) and this concept being associated with meditation has resulted in a lot of people turning away from the practice. There are, in fact, an enormous range of types of meditation and almost everyone can find a type that works for them. I have found that Guided Visualisations work for most people. Guided Visualisations involve you sitting still while you listen to a track that guides your thoughts. The “6 Phase Meditation” by Vishen Lakhiani from Mindvalley is particularly powerful.

Life Balance – In demanding work situations, it is common that work heavily effects the other areas of life. Whether that is by working extended hours, resulting in little time for the other areas of life, by the individuals spending their non-work time thinking about work or by work being demanding to the point where non-work time is spend in a state of exhaustion. I would strongly encourage you to create and maintain a healthy balance between work and the other areas of your life.

Social Connection – It has been widely documented that social connection has an enormous bearing on an individual’s wellbeing. The benefits of connections with people who value, support, respect and uplift you are enormous.

Barriers of Time and/or Place – Where possible, setting up designated times and places for work and excluding other times and places from work can help to minimize stress. In terms of barriers of place, having a designated workplace is great for this, and can also be applied to people who work from home by having a particular area of your home where work is performed, and that area is not used for other purposes. In terms of barriers of time, setting up allocations of time for work and allocation for other life activities can be very useful. Having these barriers of time and place assists us to separate work from the other areas of our lives and can help us mentally separate from work and better allow us to enjoy the rest of our lives without constantly thinking about work.

SELF-MANAGEMENT PRACTICES

Self-management practices are about being aware of your state and taking steps to control or modify your state when needed. The following are some of the practices for monitoring and/or controlling your mental state.

Mindfulness – Mindfulness is about being fully present and aware. It’s about observing our own bodily sensations, thoughts and feelings without judgement or control. Many meditations are actually mindfulness meditations, designed to train us in our ability to be mindful. The advantage of mindfulness is that it teaches us to be aware of ourselves (thoughts, feelings and body sensations), because by being aware, we are better able to redirect, rather than just to react to situations and pressures.

Your Physiology – There are two sides to using your physiology as a self-management practice. Firstly, stressors or tensions often exhibit as physical signs. These could be aches or pains in the body, illnesses or something else. Many people ignore the information that our body gives us, especially when the information is subtle. However, by “tuning in” to how your body is feeling, we can get hints about our mental and physical states, and therefore take steps to manage the cause.

Secondly, we can alter how we are feeling and reacting to situations by controlling our physiology. For example, anxious feelings can generally be greatly reduced by a few minutes of slow, deep breathing, or feelings of being overwhelmed or nervousness can be greatly reduced by adopting a strong physical stance – head up, shoulders back and sitting or standing tall.

Mindset – You have an enormous amount of influence over your state. By being aware of and controlling your mindset, you can greatly influence how you react to situations. The best example of this that I am aware of was Ronald Reagan. Many of you will remember that American President Ronald Reagan was shot in the lung in an assassination attempt in 1981. Ronald Reagan was in his 70s at the time of the shooting. After the shooting, Ronald Reagan is reported as saying from his hospital bed: “Don’t worry about me. I’m the type of person who always heals quickly” and the reality was that Ronald Reagan returned to work in a matter of days. His mindset was to heal and get back to work quickly, and that’s exactly what happened.

Purpose and The Big Picture of Your Work – One of the keys to being able to perform to a high standards of work and maintain personal wellbeing is to have a definite picture of the greater purpose of the work that you do and the greater purpose of the work to your personal life. For safety professionals, the greater purpose of the work is obvious – it’s about looking after the health and safety of workers. Personal purpose can range enormously. Some examples could be being passionate about ensuring that that workers are safe while they perform their work, along with much more personal purposes, such as providing income to educate my children. Having a concept of the higher purposes gives us a greater ability to rise above the daily demands and stressors.

Journaling or Talking With Others – When people are feeling the effects of being exposed to trauma or stress, the effects of these can often be reduced by communicating. Some people are more comfortable with self-communication, and one of the best methods of this is journaling. Journaling involves recording thoughts, reactions, commentaries of events and feelings in a journal that is generally not designed to be read by anyone else. Journaling moves the thoughts and reactions from your head and gives an outlet for processing and stating how you feel, and therefore preventing “bottling up” of feelings and reactions. Alternatively, some people prefer to communicate their reactions to others. Obviously in confidential situations, there are restrictions on who events can be communicated with. An authorised peer or colleague, a Line Manager or an EAP (Employee As