New research suggests that the first six months after a workplace injury may be critical to an injured worker's ongoing mental health.
We already know that during recovery injured workers often face pain, physical limitations, isolation, and uncertainty about their future. These consequences leave them vulnerable to depression.
Research results published recently by the Institute for Work & Health (IWH) add to our understanding by showing that depression evident six months after an injury may last for at least another six months. Watching for early signs of depression and providing support could ward off future mental health problems, says study author Nancy Carnide, a research associate at IWH.
"Recovering from an injury is hard enough, but depression can slow down the process," says WSPS health and safety consultant Marie de Boyrie. "The more an employer can do to help the worker be their best physically and mentally, the more everyone benefits."
WSPS eNews asked Marie what steps employers could take to help protect and promote the mental health of injured workers. Here's what she told us.
What HR can do
Be proactive in contacting injured workers, by phone if they're at home, or in person if they're back at work. Let them know you're available as a resource, you’ll check in with them regularly, and they can reach out to you any time. At minimum, having regular contact keeps them engaged with the workplace and reduces feelings of isolation.
Ask open-ended questions. "What kind of things are you doing to help with your recovery? Are you in an active treatment plan? Is there anything we can do to help you work through any challenges you're having with your injury?" These questions must come from a position of genuinely wanting to help.
Encourage return to work as soon as it's safe to do so. The WSIB supports early and safe return to work because it can be better for the injured workers' mental health than staying at home. At work they feel more like a contributing member of society, and have a purposeful routine - so long as you're not just giving them busy work. Then they won't feel very valuable.
If workers at home don't engage with your efforts to stay in touch, alert the case manager. Silence or avoidance could be a symptom of emerging problems. If you know the person well enough, consider having a conversation: "I'm concerned, it sounds like things may be impacting more than your physical health. Is there anything you would like to talk about? Is there anything we can help support you with while you're away from work?"
Escalate if necessary. If you believe mental health issues may be putting the worker at risk, you have an obligation to contact emergency services. I've dealt with cases where people told me they were having thoughts of suicide. You can't just take that information and do nothing with it.
What supervisors can do
Listen, not just to what the injured workers say but how they say it. Are they using different language? Has the tone changed? Do they have any work-related concerns they would be willing to discuss?
Observe. Are they still social? Participating in activities? Are they isolating themselves? Withdrawn?
Be ready to offer support. If injured workers are having problems, encourage them to contact the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) provider. Alternatively, ensure they're aware of free local resources, such as Ontario's toll-free Mental Health Helpline, which provides free health services information; 1-866-531-2600.
How WSPS can help
"It's not easy having conversations with people around mental health," says Marie, "but with the right training anyone can learn how to recognize symptoms, start a conversation, and help people find support." Start here: