How Employers Can Reduce Mental Health-Driven Ergonomic Risk

By Juan Garcia May 09th, 2023

The coronavirus pandemic has been a significant driver in pushing the importance of mental health to the forefront of the public consciousness. Given the increased attention, employers must design and implement safety programs that account for workers’ mental well-being in an increasingly stressful world, according to Kevin Lombardo, CEO of Dorn Companies — a wellness-based pain management, ergonomics, and injury prevention firm.

Lombardo, who hosted Captive Resources’ April Risk Control Webinar, cited data that underscores the impact of mental health and wellness on ergonomic injuries and provided practical tips employers can use to develop more holistic wellness programs to better control today’s occupational risks.

Here is a recap of Lombardo’s presentation focusing on the information employers need to know about the mental health risks associated with ergonomic injuries.

The Associated Costs

Lombardo pointed out that employers incur direct and indirect costs from common occupational musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) that result from ergonomic risks, e.g., awkward postures and repetitive motions. At $45 billion to $54 billion, indirect costs of MSDs such as lost productivity, absenteeism, and chronic pain far outweigh the direct costs of $20 billion. Psychological reactions to injuries that drive up the indirect costs include depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and substance abuse, he said.

MSD costs are trending upward, Lombardo emphasized. He referred to a 2021 study indicating that soft-tissue occupational injuries have increased by 226 percent “post-COVID,” as many states eased pandemic restrictions and employees returned to offices and physical job sites.

Root Causes of More Ergonomic Injuries

According to Lombardo, purely ergonomic risks are only part of the overall risk of occupational MSDs — in many cases, pain is the manifestation of workers’ underlying issues. Increasingly, the root causes of chronic pain are mental health challenges and work-life unbalance. He mentioned several statistics indicating that the risks of occupational MSDs from these root causes are growing in a more stressful world:

  • One in five U.S. adults lives with a mental illness.
  • People with chronic pain are three times more likely to be depressed, and vice versa.
  • The 12–17 and 18–25 age demographics were about 10 percent more likely to have a major depressive episode than those 26 and older in 2020. About 10 years ago, the difference was roughly 3 percent.
  • The percentages of workers reporting mental wellness-related fatigue, higher stress, mental health challenges, and work-life unbalance are double to triple the percentages reporting neck, shoulder, wrist, or back pain.
  • Eighty-three percent of U.S. workers experience work-related stress.

How Employers Should Adapt

As a takeaway for employers, Lombardo offered several strategies to take better care of employees and control MSD costs:

  • Rethink environment, health, and safety (EHS) program design. Rather than focusing primarily on safety and injury prevention, employers should take a holistic approach to EHS by addressing mental health, wellness, safety technology, and infectious disease prevention.
  • Embrace the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Total Worker Health (TWH) approach. The TWH program offers publications and reports with the latest research, training resources, events, and more.
  • If you are creating a new EHS management role, recruit someone with experience in mental health, safety technology, and wellness.
  • Design your safety programs under a TWH umbrella, so when you introduce new technologies, etc., you can propose them as an enhancement of existing programs.
  • Build internal partnerships with Human Resources, Operations, and Finance to gain more organizational buy-in and ownership when designing the program.
  • Treat the program as an ongoing initiative similar to an emergency preparedness plan: Update it yearly, test out additions, etc.
  • Elevate your front-line engagement levels with the new TWH approach. Replace your safety committee with an ergonomic action team to address more holistic challenges.
  • Train managers to look for mental wellness challenges employees might be experiencing, such as high stress or fatigue.
  • Empower managers to give struggling employees a 10-minute “cool-down” so they can mentally reset.
  • Offer employees benefits and perks such as mental health and wellness education; 24/7 helplines and real-time communication tools; virtual on-demand and live self-care programming; and fatigue management programs.

About the Webinar

This presentation was part of Captive Resources’ Risk Control Webinar Series — regular installments of webinars to educate the group captive members we work with on topics like workplace safety, organizational leadership, and company performance. The thoughts and opinions expressed in these webinars are those of the presenters and do not necessarily reflect Captive Resources’ positions on any of the above topics.

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