March 24, 2020 / Bernard Fontaine, Jr.

Proud to Be an IH: Shaping the Future

This article is part of the SynergistNOW series “Proud to Be an IH.” Read the introductory post for more information.

As an undergraduate student studying to attend medical school and then practice pediatric oncology, I learned about the field of industrial hygiene and occupational health through a cooperative educational program with federal OSHA. After attending several rotations in various area field offices, I felt that my education and talent could be better used to help people by preventing illness, injury, and disease as an industrial hygienist.

After graduate school and earning my professional certifications, I learned that my career choice was more fulfilling to me than oncology would have been. Workers and leaders need help understanding that health hazards and the associated risk affects their business, lives, community, and environment. My career path gave me a window into many different market sectors and to the people performing daily jobs behind the scenes of our modern world.

Industrial hygiene and occupational health have provided me a unique lens to view total worker health, which expands on traditional horizons, and looks toward new paths affecting human performance; corroborating research with medical, toxicological, and epidemiological findings; and examining other confounding factors that influence society, policy, economics, community, and environment. As business and industry continue to evolve with new innovations and technology, so will the skill set of industrial hygienists and occupational health professionals, to help protect a global workforce, the planet, and corporate profits. Through open communication to find common ground, together we can make a difference in shaping the future of work, economy, society, and the environment around us.

The IH and Workplace Mental Health

An example of why I’m proud to be an IH is an often neglected but important issue: mental health and psychosocial disorders in the workplace, which affect many employees—and are usually overlooked because these disorders tend to be hidden at work. When career professional industrial hygienists begin to look closely at Total Worker Health, it becomes increasingly obvious that a person’s mental health is related to his or her physical health—they influence each other within the balance of life and work. Researchers analyzing results from the U.S. National Comorbidity Survey, a national representative study of Americans ages 15 to 54, reported that 18 percent of those who were employed said they experienced symptoms of a mental health disorder in the previous month. Mental health issues are a silent tsunami in the workplace, one that could engulf organizations in myriad human performance, productivity, and profitability problems. But the stigma attached to having a psychiatric disorder, such as anxiety or depression, is such that employees may be reluctant to seek treatment—especially in the current economic climate—out of fear that they might jeopardize their job or career.

At the same time, managers may want to help, but aren't sure how to do so. And clinicians may find themselves in unfamiliar territory, simultaneously trying to treat a patient while providing advice about dealing with the illness at work. As a result, mental health disorders often go unrecognized and untreated—not only damaging an individual's health and career, but also reducing productivity at work. Adequate treatment, on the other hand, can alleviate symptoms for the employee and improve job performance. But accomplishing these aims requires a shift in attitudes about the nature of mental disorders, and the recognition that such a worthwhile achievement takes effort and time.

Addressing Mental Health

The literature on mental health problems in the workplace suggests that the personal toll on employees—and the financial cost to companies—could be eased if a greater proportion of workers who need treatment are able to receive it. The authors of such studies advise employees and employers to think of mental healthcare as an investment—one that's worth the up-front time and cost. Most of the research on the costs and benefits of treatment has been done on employees with depression. The studies have found that when depression is adequately treated, companies see reductions in job-related accidents, sick days, and employee turnover; an increase in the number of hours worked; and improved employee productivity.

The research also suggests that treating depression is not quick. Although adequate treatment alleviates symptoms and raises productivity in the long term, one study found that in the short term, employees may need to take time off to attend clinical appointments or reduce their hours in order to recover. To overcome barriers to accessing care, and to make it more affordable to companies, the National Institute of Mental Health is sponsoring the Work Outcomes Research and Cost Effectiveness Study at Harvard Medical School. As advocates for behavioral change and safety culture, industrial hygienists must identify stressors that affect both mental health and psychosocial disorders in the workplace, and collaborate with business partners and stakeholders to help make change. Change will improve the business and interpersonal relationships between leadership and the workforce, which will drive opportunity to improve human performance, productivity, and prosperity for all.

My work as an industrial hygienist has been tremendously rewarding in reducing and preventing work-related illnesses, injuries, and diseases. Now, I look forward to further advancing the profession through innovations and technology, expanding the understanding all of the risks that affect the health and safety of workers, collaborating with business partners and stakeholders, and cultivating new opportunities for career professionals as everyone moves toward the fourth industrial revolution and the future of work.

Bernard Fontaine, Jr.

Bernard Fontaine, Jr., CIH, CSP, FAIHA, was recently elected to the AIHA Board of Directors.

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