Guidelines for mental health in the workplace

Anna Triponel

September 30, 2022
Our key takeaway: Mental health in the workplace has taken a beating over the last several years, in light of the compounded effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, unemployment and stagnating wages, inflation, diminishing work-life balance, increasing climate change creating unpredictable conditions, global declines in democracy … and we could go on. The World Health Organization (WHO) has published guidelines for employers and employees on promoting and destigmatising mental health in the workplace, supporting workers who struggle with mental health, and—crucially—embedding policies and cultural shifts that ensure workers do not face undue stress that could lead to worsening mental health outcomes. The upshot of the guidance is that mental health is not just an individual issue to be dealt with outside of the workplace; it’s an issue affecting a large number of adults and is closely intertwined with our daily tasks, our sense of belonging, inclusion and meaning at work, and our overall well-being. These aspects not only affect productivity but also our fundamental human rights. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) released its Guidelines on Mental Health at Work (September 2022), which “provide evidence-based recommendations to promote mental health, prevent mental health conditions, and enable people living with mental health conditions to participate and thrive in work”:

Links between mental health and work: The WHO underscores the close connections between mental health and work. Specifically, “[m]ental health is more than the absence of mental health conditions. Rather, mental health is a state of mental well-being that enables people to cope with the stresses of life, to realize their abilities, to learn well and work well, and to contribute to their communities.” Poor mental health has negative impacts on productivity, effectiveness and morale—and likewise, poor working conditions can create and exacerbate mental health issues, creating a cycle of crisis. The WHO estimates that around 15% of working-age adults have a mental disorder at any point in time. What’s more, “[t]he size of the public health problem of mental health conditions is greater than the volume of investment to address it. This is the case despite international conventions calling for the protection of workers’ physical and mental health through national policies in occupational safety and health.” The report provides ten categories of risk factors for poor mental health: content and design of work tasks; workload and work pace; work schedule; control over workload and decision-making; working environment and adequate equipment; organisational culture and function; nature of interpersonal relationships are work; an individual’s role in the organisation; career development; and work-life balance. 

Embedding respect for mental health from an organizational perspective: The Guidelines provide several recommendations for organisations to address mental health among their workforce. One example is “interventions that address psychosocial risk factors, including interventions involving participatory approaches [which] may be considered for workers to reduce emotional distress and improve work-related outcomes.” Likewise, organisational interventions may focus on “reductions to workload and schedule changes or improvement in communication and teamwork” among workers, especially health, humanitarian and emergency workers. The Guidelines also recommends that organisations implement ”reasonable work accommodations … for workers with mental health conditions, including psychosocial disabilities, in line with international human rights principles.” The WHO puts emphasis on the importance of training managers to support workers’ mental health, including to “improve managers’ knowledge, attitudes and behaviours for mental health and to improve workers’ help-seeking behaviours.” The Guidelines also recommend that organisations take on “[r]ecovery-oriented strategies enhancing vocational and economic inclusion to ensure that people with severe mental health conditions have access to decent work. In addition, the Guidelines call for employers to provide supports for people returning to work after an absence related to mental health conditions, including through “(a) work-directed care plus evidence-based mental health clinical care or (b) evidence-based mental health clinical care alone.”

Empowering workers to strengthen mental health and build resilience: The WHO additionally recommends that organisations provide training for workers in mental health literacy and awareness, specifically to “improve trainees’ mental health-related knowledge and attitudes at work, including stigmatizing attitudes.” Likewise, the Guidelines emphasise that individual workers should be provided with interventions designed to help them manage mental stress: “interventions based on mindfulness or cognitive behavioural approaches – may be considered for workers to promote positive mental health, reduce emotional distress and improve work effectiveness.” Workers should also have opportunities “for leisure-based physical activity – such as resistance training, strength-training, aerobic training, walking or yoga” in order “improve mental health and work ability.”

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