WHO, ILO tackle mental health crisis at work

The World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labor Organization (ILO) have called for concrete action to address mental health concerns in the working population. An estimated 12 billion workdays are lost annually due to depression and anxiety costing the global economy nearly US$ one trillion. 

WHO’s new global guidelines on mental health at work, published in September, recommend actions to tackle risks to mental health such as heavy workloads, negative behaviors and other factors that create distress at work. For the first time WHO recommends manager training, to build their capacity to prevent stressful work environments and respond to workers in distress. 

Bullying and psychological violence (also known as mobbing) are key complaints of workplace harassment that have a negative impact on mental health. Yet discussing or disclosing mental health remains a taboo in work settings globally. 

The guidelines also recommend better ways to accommodate the needs of workers with mental health conditions, propose interventions that support their return to work and, for those with severe mental health conditions, provide interventions that facilitate entry into paid employment. Importantly, the guidelines call for interventions aimed at the protection of health, humanitarian and emergency workers. 

“It’s time to focus on the detrimental effect work can have on our mental health,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. 

“The well-being of the individual is reason enough to act, but poor mental health can also have a debilitating impact on a person’s performance and productivity. These new guidelines can help prevent negative work situations and cultures and offer much-needed mental health protection and support for working people.” 

A separate WHO/ILO policy brief explains the WHO guidelines in terms of practical strategies for governments, employers and workers and their organizations, in the public and private sectors. 

The aim is to support the prevention of mental health risks, protect and promote mental health at work, and support those with mental health conditions so they can participate and thrive in the world of work. Investment and leadership will be critical to the implementation of the strategies. 

“As people spend a large proportion of their lives in work – a safe and healthy working environment is critical. We need to invest to build a culture of prevention around mental health at work, reshape the work environment to stop stigma and social exclusion, and ensure employees with mental health conditions feel protected and supported,” said Guy Ryder, ILO Director-General. 

The ILO Occupational Safety and Health Convention (No. 155) and Recommendation (No. 164) provides a legal framework to protect the health and safety of workers. However, the WHO Mental Health Atlas found that only 35 per cent of countries reported having national programs for work-related mental health promotion and prevention. 

WHO’s World mental health report, published in June 2022, showed that of one billion people living with a mental disorder in 2019, 15 per cent of working-age adults experienced a mental disorder. Work amplifies wider societal issues that negatively affect mental health, including discrimination and inequality. 

COVID-19 triggered a 25 per cent increase in general anxiety and depression worldwide, exposing how unprepared governments were for its impact on mental health and revealing a chronic global shortage of mental health resources. In 2020, governments worldwide spent an average of just two per cent of health budgets on mental health, with lower-middle income countries investing less than one per cent.

Photo credit: Gerd Altmann/Pixabay

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