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Safety at work. Why it’s a must, not a nice-to-have

Working as a junior doctor in London was tough. 

But it wasn’t the patients that made life hard. 

It was working too many hours, often with minimal supervision and inadequate time to rest.

Vicky (not her real name) was one of the other junior doctors I worked with at that time.

I didn’t know her very well. What I saw was an intelligent young woman, quite gregarious who liked to challenge the status quo. But our shifts meant there was precious little time to get to know each other and as we worked for different consultants, our paths rarely crossed.

One day I arrived at work to be told that Vicky had left.

No explanation was given for her sudden departure, and we were simply informed that our “on-call” rosters would now be revised to cover her hours.

Asking around, a sad tale of events emerged, of how Vicky had been struggling with depression for some time and had been stealing drugs from the hospital pharmacy. On duty one night, things spiralled into a psychotic episode, she stripped off all her clothes and ran out of the hospital stark naked into the path of an oncoming bus.

I never saw Vicky again.

I never discovered the outcome. 

Did she survive?

Did she recover and return to medicine?

Looking back on that event, I realise how badly it was managed. There was no debrief, no conversation around what might have contributed to her mental collapse. No questions were asked about how the rest of us were faring.

The expectation of the time was to carry on in true British fashion, buried in too much work and ignorant of the need to be able to:

  1. recognise when a colleague was struggling and needed help
  2. review how the way we were working was potentially harmful to our health and mental wellbeing.

Workplace safety, feeling protected from harm is one of the five essentials outlined by Vivek Murthy in his new Framework for Workplace Mental Health and Wellbeing.

He describes how safety and security are the two human needs required to provide this protection. 

 

1. Feeling safe at work is about knowing that

a) Someone actually cares about you as a person
b) You have a friend or colleague you can confide in
c) It’s OK to put your hand up to ask for help/ask a question/seek clarification/share what’s really going on for you.

Feeling unsafe is

The uncertainty of a colleague’s mood. Will they be friendly and nice, or grouchy and unreasonable?

Feeling picked on or ignored by others for being different.

Being excluded from a conversation, meeting or the lunch table and you don’t know why.

 

2. Safety at work is all about

Having adequate time for rest and recovery. Because we can all step up in the short term when required to put in the extra hours as needed.

But not when it becomes expected for you to take on a double shift – again.

Have you noticed the impact being taken for granted, or feeling unappreciated has on your mood, your wellbeing, and your desire to contribute fully?

As humans we all need to ensure we get adequate rest which is more than just getting enough sleep at night, it’s about the different types of rest required to handle the emotional, mental, and cognitive load we carry.

Feeling unsafe is when

You’re so tired, you’re not sure you’re safe to be getting behind the wheel of your car to drive home.

You’re relying on caffeine, alcohol or smoking to keep going.

Your level of fatigue or distraction means you fail to notice an obvious physical hazard or a mistake in your calculations being inserted into a report.

You no longer care about your role, your career, or your future. All you want is to escape, to anywhere else but here.

 

3. Safety at work is about

  1. Feeling part of a workplace culture that takes mental wellbeing seriously and seeks to reduce any associated stigma by making it normal to talk about emotions.
  2. Providing clear communication channels to ensure everyone has a voice and is listened to.
  3. Feeling free to take a mental health or wellbeing day as needed

Feeling unsafe is when

You fear being judged, ridiculed, or disbelieved about how you feel so you keep quiet.

You hear derogatory comments being made about a colleague who has taken time off work for mental health reasons.

You are discouraged from developing or implementing a wellbeing strategy for your workplace.

We are whole beings meaning mental health is one part of your overall health. It is every bit as worthy of attention through the lens of prevention and early intervention as your physical or emotional health and wellbeing. 

 

4. Security at work

This builds on safety and is about having job and economic security. It’s about inclusion especially for those who may consider themselves marginalised.

Celebrating workplace diversity enables your unique talents to be known and seen as a source of strength.

 

Workplace mental health and wellbeing needs to be a top priority business strategy.

What is most important for you to feel safe and secure at work?

 

Dr Jenny Brockis is a board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, keynote speaker, trainer and best-selling author. Her new book Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life (Wiley) is available for purchase.

If psychological safety, burnout prevention and mental wellbeing is something you’d like to find out more about, please contact me to set up a time for a chat.

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