When it comes to workplace health and safety, people usually think it means physical illness and injuries due to the job. For example, a nurse might contract COVID-19 from a patient; a farm worker might be injured in a tractor accident. But mental health is just as important, even though it can often be hidden from sight. Employees with mental health issues often miss work for extended periods (e.g., due to a depressive episode) and in the extreme can become suicidal. A new research article by Rina Hastuti and Andrew Timming, published in Personnel Review, gives some hints about how HR analytics can help with mental health.
Mental Health Affects the Workplace
The mental health of employees should be a major concern to their employers. From an ethical perspective, organizations should do what they can to not only create a working environment that is psychologically healthy, but help employees deal with mental health issues as they arise. From a pragmatic perspective, mental health disorders are a major cause of absence from work. Perhaps more concerning is presenteeism—that individuals who are having mental health challenges come to work distracted and not at their best. This can lead to an increased risk of accidents and less than ideal performance. For example, it would be hard for a depressed customer service employee to provide optimal customer service. For these reasons organizations should not focus solely on physical health and safety.
HR Analytics Can Help with Mental Health
Hastuti and Timming focused their research on severe mental health crises at work. They wanted to know if information routinely maintained in human resources databases might be able to predict suicidal thoughts or behaviors. They applied HR analytics that are typically used to predict job performance to identify potentially suicidal employees. The study used data from the U.S. National Survey on Drug Use and Health to see if four variables could predict suicidal thoughts or behavior.
- Number of days out of work for illness or injury.
- Number of days of unauthorized absence without illness.
- Whether employer has an employee assistance program (EAP).
- Whether the employee had been unemployed in the prior year.
The results showed that these predictors were related to suicidal thoughts, suicidal planning, and suicide attempts. Of the four, unauthorized absence and being unemployed were the most consistent in predicting all three suicide variables. Absence due to illness or injury related to suicidal thoughts and attempts, and availability of an EAP was only related to suicidal thoughts.
The authors of this study suggest that HR information systems likely contain information that can be used to identify individuals at risk for suicidal thoughts and behavior. This is most likely if individuals have had a period of unemployment in the prior year. Frequent absence without illness or injury might be an indicator of a growing mental health issue that is in need of attention. Supervisors should be trained to recognize the warning signs of mental health issues and when to refer an employee for services.
This study is the not the only one to show a link between the workplace and suicide. It should be clear that the focus of occupational health and safety in organizations should include mental health. This means enhancing the training of occupational health and safety professionals to include knowledge of mental health issues as they relate to the workplace. Adding mental health to the health and safety function of organizations is consistent with the National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOSH) total worker health initiative, as it recognizes that employee health is about more than physical illness and injury. As this research shows, HR analytics is a tool that can be potentially useful for identifying and helping people at risk for mental health problems.
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