A look around the world at mental health in the workplace

Among the countless number of occupational diseases workers are exposed to globally, mental health issues have proved to be one of the most dangerous.

Among the countless number of occupational diseases workers are exposed to globally, mental health issues have proved to be one of the most dangerous. Studies continue to confirm their accountability for a majority of long-term leaves from work, just behind cancer. Although there has been marked increase in campaigns addressing mental health and its consequences in the workplace, there remains a lack of concrete regulatory measures and policies around the issue. It is worth pointing out that mental health problems remain unaccounted for on the list of occupational diseases for most of the countries in the world.

So, what is happening, in terms of policies and recommendations, to reduce incidence of mental health? Is mental health in the workplace on the road toward being recognized, by law, as an occupational disease?

In this article, we will examine the concepts of mental health and well-being in the workplace and how regulators and policymakers are addressing the emerging risks arising from this problem along with the wave of related campaigns in Europe and the rest of the world.

October 2017, A Busy Month for the Promotion of Well-being at Work

This year, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) organized the European Week for Safety and Health at Work (23-27 October 2017) under the title “Healthy Workplaces for All Ages” in an attempt to raise awareness on mental health issues and promote healthy and sustainable work. In addition to this, the 50th Annual Mental Health Week (from 8 to 14 October 2017) and the World Mental Health Day (10th October) were also observed.

Importantly, “Mental Health in the Workplace” was the cornerstone of this year’s Mental Health Day. The importance of a sustainable working life was also underlined in the European Week for Safety and Health. Finally, “well-being” was also highlighted this year as one of the International Social Security Association (ISSA) “Vision Zero” campaign’s three core values along with health and safety.

A lot of attention is being directed toward health and well-being at work. Recently it is a much more frequent occurrence to come across mental health related issues in general news media, as well as being discussed and examined in seminars, campaigns, researches and studies.

Defining Well-being, Mental health and Sustainable Work

Because mental health and well-being at work are at the center of this year’s awareness campaigns, it is important to define these concepts in order to have a better understanding of their implications.

“Sustainable work” and “Well-being” at work are two overlapping concepts. For any work to be considered sustainable, it cannot lack the necessary components for the worker’s well-being and mental health. The distinction is not clear between “wellbeing” and “mental health” and people often use the terms interchangeably. But are they the same thing?

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines mental health as a “state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community”.

Well-being in its turn, is defined in an EU official document as “a summative concept that characterizes the quality of working lives, including occupational safety and health (OSH) aspects, and it may be a major determinant of productivity at the individual, enterprise and societal levels”.

As such, even though the definitions of mental health and well-being are relatively similar, in society’s understanding mental health continues to be correlated with mental illness whereas well-being in turn goes beyond mental illness to encompass job satisfaction, fair working conditions and the quality of work.

For the purposes of this article we will use mental health and well-being interchangeably, but it is important to bear in mind the differences between them and the fact that both are very broad/general terms that can cover a huge range of types and levels of severity of specific conditions.

Risks at Work

According to the WHO, risks to mental health at work may include many factors such as:

  • inadequate health and safety policies;
  • poor communication and management practices;
  • limited participation in decision-making or low control over one’s area of work;
  • low levels of support for employees;
  • inflexible working hours; and
  • unclear tasks or organizational objectives.

In turn, harassment in the workplace or even the nature of work can lead to situations where clinical depression is far from being the only repercussion.

Moves around the globe calling for healthier workplaces

It is estimated that in the European Union (EU) across its 28 Member States (MS), one in five workers suffer from poor mental well-being. Coincidentally there are, many movements and campaigns taking place at the EU level to address mental health issues even though this might not be a core competency of the EU. As such, the EU-Compass for Action on Mental Health and Well-being, an initiative launched by the EU, declared “Mental Health at Work” as a focus priority for 2017. Additionally, a good practices survey was recently launched by the EU-Compass to allow stakeholders and Member States to share their well-being practices and programs.

Within the EU, the definitions and the approaches differ a lot between the different Member States. Therefore, there is no joint legal framework or policy set-up that binds respective MS governments on how to tackle mental health. To the contrary, every MS has a set of different definitions, laws, policies, etc. and moves at its own pace regarding mental health issues at work.

In one recent development, the federal government in Belgium announced its intention to introduce two key measures to tackle “burn-out” at work. The first measure will be to introduce the concept of the “right to disconnect” into collective labor agreements. This will mean that workers will have the right to disconnect from out-of-hours work emails or calls. The concept of the “right to disconnect” was also recently introduced in France in 2016 and now many other countries are planning to follow its lead.

Perhaps more significant is the second measure, which will require companies in Belgium with more than 100 employees to make use of trained counsellors specialized in the prevention of stress and burn-out. This would be significant as it might be the first regulatory provision we have seen, anywhere in the world, that seeks to specifically address this topic.

In Germany, where it is estimated that sick leave for mental disorders have increased by 80% in the past ten years, there are a lot of policy initiatives taking place to tackle the problem of mental health. For instance, the “New Quality of Work” initiative, founded since 2002, supports companies in creating an employee-oriented organizational culture in four central culture areas: personnel management, equal opportunities & diversities, health and knowledge & competence.

In Spain, guidance to help employers to assess psychosocial risk factors was issued by the National Occupational Health and Safety Institute in 2015. The guidance provides a non-comprehensive list of information sources which may help companies to determine the psychosocial risk factors that are present in their facilities. Such sources include opinions of the social groups involved, observation of the work while it is being performed and reports. A workshop addressing mental health at work took place on 3 October 2017 in Madrid this year too.

In Canada, a policy on the prevention of discrimination based on mental health disabilities and addictions released in 2015 by the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) tackled the engagement of individuals with mental disabilities in the work environment. The Not myself Today campaign also helped companies build mentally healthy workplaces. With more than 450 companies joining, the campaign proved to be a helpful tool for companies and played a crucial role in addressing the mental health problem at work in Canada.

In Turkey, the High Court and Court of Appeal of Ankara issued a revolutionary decision on 17 October 2017. The Decision enables employees who have been facing bullying at their workplace to appeal against the person who conducts the bullying. Nevertheless, employers remain responsible for fighting against psychological bullying at work and they are required to adopt all measures to prevent it.

Finally, in terms of workshops, studies and awareness campaigns, we spotted a few that were announced this October too. For instance, the Mental Health Minister of Western Australia announced the start of a study to address the factors affecting mental health of FIFO workers. FIFO workers include workers who fly to remote site for short work periods in sectors such as mining. In the United Kingdom (UK) a review, recently commissioned by Theresa May, concluded that every year around 300,000 people lose their job because of mental health problems. In another shocking claim recently circulating in the news, it was found that in the UK the loss of job due to mental health problems was 50% higher than those resulting from physical health conditions.

Practical steps employers can take to ensure their employees mental health is protected

Recently, the World Economic Forum published a voluntary seven-step guide to workplace mental health.

According to the guide, employers should start by reducing work–related risk factors. Then, special attention should be given to develop the positive aspects of work and the employee’s strengths. In a final step, all mental health problems must be addressed regardless of what may have caused them.

Additionally, the guide states that:

  • a good knowledge of the workplace environment can be a very helpful tool which enables employers in identifying the means and measures needed to adapt the workplace in the best possible way for the employee’s mental health;
  • avoiding possible mistakes by learning on what other organizations have already done has also proved to be very important; and
  • understanding the needs of every employee is crucial to develop better policies for workplace mental health.

The Mental Health Foundation also developed a checklist for employers wishing to create mentally healthy workplaces. Actions to be checked by employers according to the checklist include activities such as conducting regular staff surveys to build data about staff mental health and providing opportunities for managers to attend relevant trainings to support staff living with mental health problems.

In Conclusion: From Policy to Law?

The movement of mental health issues into the mainstream seems to be happening at pace. A subject that was very much taboo – and rarely discussed openly – is increasingly the focus of non-governmental initiatives and campaigns. In Europe we are beginning to see numerous governmental policies aiming to address the issue – and even, in Belgium – a move to regulate the topic. Things are moving in the right direction. However, in other parts of the world, it is hard to find parallel movement … It is a harsh reality that in many countries, societies and cultures, mental health (and the great range of conditions that exist within that all-encompassing term) are still seen as signs of “weakness” and as people have a realistic fear that they will lose their jobs because of any condition, choose to hide it and not address potential contributing factors at their workplaces.

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