WHO and ILO are calling for new measures to tackle mental health issues in the workplace

The new WHO global guidelines on mental health at work are reinforced by practical strategies described in a joint WHO/ILO policy brief.

The WHO and the International Labor Organization (ILO) have called for concrete action to address the mental health problems of the working population.

An estimated 12 billion workdays are lost annually due to depression and anxiety, costing the global economy nearly US$1 trillion. Two new publications that aim to address this issue have been published today – the WHO Guidelines on Mental Health at Work and a derivative WHO/ILO Policy Brief.

The WHO Global Guidelines on Mental Health at Work recommend actions to address mental health risks such as high workloads, negative behaviors and other factors that create workplace distress. For the first time, WHO recommends training managers to build their capacity to prevent stressful work environments and respond to workers in distress.

The WHO World Mental Health Report, published in June 2022, showed that of the one billion people living with a mental disorder in 2019, 15% of working-age adults had a mental disorder. The work reinforces wider societal issues that negatively affect mental health, including discrimination and inequality. Harassment and psychological abuse (also known as “mobbing”) is a major complaint of workplace harassment that has a negative impact on mental health. Yet discussing or disclosing mental health remains taboo in work settings worldwide.

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

“It is time to focus on the detrimental effect that work can have on our mental health,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. “An individual’s well-being is reason enough to act, but poor mental health can also have a debilitating effect 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 to working people.

A separate WHO/ILO policy brief explains WHO guidance on 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, to protect and promote mental health in the workplace and to support people with mental illness to 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 part of their lives at work – a safe and healthy work environment is crucial. We need to invest to build a culture of prevention around mental health in the workplace, change the working environment to stop stigma and social exclusion and ensure that employees with mental health conditions feel protected and supported,” said Guy Ryder, General director of the ILO.

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

COVID-19 has caused a 25% increase in overall anxiety and depression worldwide, revealing how unprepared governments are 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 2% of health budgets on mental health, with lower-middle-income countries investing less than 1%.

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