High Risk Roles, High Risk for Mental Health

Who’s got your back at work?

High risk - man on a ledge looking over a city - Petros, Resilience for life

Some jobs involve a higher risk of exposure to emotionally, psychologically and physically demanding events than others and these roles often require managing the challenging behaviour of others.

Criminal justice, medicine, social work and teaching are all public facing roles where there may be an increased risk of exposure to violence and you can include cash handling, security or any situation where there is the consumption of alcohol.


For people working in these high risk jobs, every day offers the potential of exposure to things that may be psychologically distressing, whether it be the acting out behaviour of a mentally ill patient, dealing with an aggressive customer, or managing violent threats of someone under the influence of drink or drugs.  If the nature, or core business, of an organisation is known to put high psychological and emotional pressure on its employees, the ability of staff to respond constructively to that demand is crucial, not just for effective performance, but also for their own good mental health. This is particularly important as research tells us that often it is not operational demands or challenging events that cause workers most damage, but the response of the very organisation for which they work.

The term ‘wellbeing’ in an organisational context, refers to establishing the right conditions to generate high levels of employee engagement and an emphasis on the social and psychological aspects of the workplace, workforce and the work people do – for both physical and mental health.  An engaged workforce is characterised by high levels of resilience resulting in competent staff who understand the difference they make and have personal values and beliefs that fit the needs of the role they undertake. In this way an engaged workforce is one that has low turnover, low levels of sickness and high levels of performance. And the key to wellbeing is a flexible, dynamic and holistic approach from both the individual and the employer; a joint responsibility for sustaining good psychological health.

In high risk jobs the benefits should be obvious, an engaged, well supported and competent employee will not only be more resilient, committed and loyal, but also in a fast moving, unpredictable environment the possibility of negligence claims and long-term sick absence are also greatly reduced.

A recent article by Scott Mautz, highlighted Patagonia, the US outdoor wear retailer, and their remarkably low staff turnover figure. He writes:

“In a recent profile in Quartz at Work highlighted some of its more noted practices like promoting women into leadership roles, paying to send nannies on business trips to embrace and support work-life integration, and hosting childcare right on their facilities (helping with their astonishing 100 percent retention rate among working mothers).

But it’s one particularly quirky policy that symbolizes the root of the company’s appeal. The company hires activist employees and encourages peaceful environmental protests.”

Patagonia’s Chief Human Resources Officer, Dean Carter, told a crowd at a recent Salt Lake City conference,

“We want them to be who they are… An authentic culture starts with the leaders. It’s worth the pursuit because authentic behaviour binds human beings to one another, reinforces self-identities, and creates a bridge to a sense of belonging.”

It’s that sense of belonging to an organisation that cares about you. Sees you. Listens to you and supports you that will ultimately win in the high stakes of mental health. Leaders and individuals in high risk occupations need to come together and create the wellbeing needed to turn up every day and do the best job they can in often difficult circumstances, secure in the knowledge someone’s got their back.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash