Health and Safety

Workplace Wellness by Design: Applying the Hierarchy of Controls to Mental Health

May 15, 2024

Workplace wellness and mental health hazards

n recent years, mental health concerns have garnered increasing attention, but the COVID-19 pandemic has introduced unique challenges that have exacerbated existing mental health issues and created new entirely new ones.  

According to a recent survey by SunLife, 50% of Canadians have experienced a decline in mental health due to the pandemic.  Various authoritative bodies such as StatsCan, the World Health Organization, and independent research organizations like H-4.org are warning of an unprecedented mental health crisis with potentially enduring consequences. 

Despite this, discussions largely focus on physical health measures like mask-wearing and hand hygiene, neglecting proactive mental health management. As business leaders, it’s crucial that we address this gap. How? Well one effective approach, long recognized but underutilized, is the Hierarchy of Controls (HoC).  

In this guide, we’ll explore how HR leaders can apply this framework to tackle mental health hazards in the workplace with practical examples for a healthier and more supportive working environment.  

What is the Hierarchy of Controls?  

The hierarchy of controls is a systematic approach designed to manage workplace hazards. Most HR professionals and risk assessors use it as a framework for minimizing or eliminating injuries, illnesses, and fatalities.  

Often depicted as an inverted triangle, it prioritizes methods to control risks from most effective to least effective, across five levels: Elimination, Substitution, Engineering Controls, Administrative Controls, and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). 

What is the Hierarchy of Controls in mental health? 

I know what you’re thinking: what does the Hierarchy of Controls have to do with mental health? By applying a modified version of the Hierarchy of Controls, we can assess mental health hazards using similar processes and procedures as physical health. This enables us to tackle mental health issues more effectively by: 

  • Prioritizing the elimination or reduction of systemic hazards over less effective front-line controls.  
  • Helping organizations reduce their risk profiles related to employer liability. 
  • Enhancing efficiency through more proactive and targeted interventions.  

However, it’s crucial to consider the complexities of mental health hazards. Unlike physical hazards, mental hazards are often invisible, episodic, and challenging to detect. While the impact of physical injuries like cuts is evident, mental health issues manifest differently, with symptoms like anxiety and isolation. Compounded by societal stigma and misconceptions about mental health, this presents a formidable challenge.  

Examples of mental health hazards in the workplace 

Although mental health hazards can be difficult to identify, there are common things you can look for such as excessive workload, unclear priorities, erratic work shifts, understaffing, poor work-life balance, lack of support from management and exposure to workplace violence or harassment. These factors can all harm or worsen mental health – and they are all hazards that employers have substantial control over. 

Applying the Hierarchy of Controls to mental health hazards 

HRdownloads Hierarchy of Controls for Mental Health is an effective approach to workplace wellness. Let’s explore how the model works using some common examples: 

Eliminate the hazard  

Remove or reduce stressors or triggers that contribute to mental health issues. This might involve redesigning job tasks or workflows to minimize excessive workloads or deadlines. 

  • Hazard: You determine that unpredictable scheduling is causing stress and anxiety for employees. 
  • Action: Implementing firm schedules or committing to one week’s notice of any schedule change would eliminate the hazard. 

Substitute the hazard 

When you can’t eliminate a hazard entirely, try to at least replace it with less harmful alternatives. 

  • Hazard: You identify that one department is understaffed and at risk of burnout. 
  • Action 1: You can’t afford to hire additional full-time staff, so you hire an additional part-time employee to ease the burden. The hazard still exists, but you’ve lessened its severity. OR 
  • Action 2: You can’t afford to hire any additional staff, so you decide to partner with a past competitor. You arrange to send them overflow orders for a ‘finders fee’. (Note: This could also eliminate the hazard if employee workloads were brought to a normal level.) 

Engineering controls  

Modify the work environment to reduce mental health risks. This could include providing quiet spaces for relaxation or implementing ergonomic designs to promote physical comfort and minimize stress. 

  • Hazard: You identify that handling store returns is particularly stressful for customer service reps. Consistently performing that task leads to burnout and turnover. 
  • Action: You decide to rotate employees through the job so no employee is overwhelmed. Not only does this reduce the hazard, but it also promotes cross-training, making it easier to cover shifts if someone falls ill or takes a leave or vacation. 

Administrative controls  

If you can’t modify the role to reduce mental health risks, help employees increase their resistance to the hazard. 

  • Hazard: You identify that difficult customers are causing your financial services reps to experience debilitating stress. In times of market instability, the problem is exacerbated along with the negative mental health impact. 
  • Action: You decide to help employees better manage their interaction with the customer by providing training on managing difficult conversations and defusing hostile customers. You also offer your employees help to reduce the internalization of these interactions, such as training in mindfulness or meditation classes. 

Provide Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) 

In instances where you can’t eliminate or reduce exposure to a hazard, equip employees with resources and support to cope with mental health challenges.  

  • Hazard: You identify an employee who is suffering from depression due to difficult personal circumstances. 
  • Action: Offer services through your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to support the employee in reducing the symptoms of exposure, such as massages or therapy. 

Ultimately, employers have the greatest responsibility for health and safety because they have the most power to make impactful changes. By using the Hierarchy of Controls for Mental Health, we can create healthier employees and workplaces by design. 


Implement the Hierarchy of Controls with HRdownloads  

If you’re ready to prioritize workplace wellness and implement the hierarchy of controls in your workplace, reach out to our team of HR experts for guidance and support. We have a wide range of online training courses available to suit various business objectives, from health and safety to cybersecurity, human rights, and much more, we’ve got you covered.  

While you’re here, check out other services for HR SoftwareHR ComplianceLive HR Advice and HR Consulting to see how we can help support your business. Contact us today or, request a free demo and we’ll provide you with a quote that best suits your needs and budget. 

How can small and medium-sized organizations overcome stigma surrounding mental illness, and promote sound mental health among employees? Download our free 4-step guide and speak up for mental health at your workplace!