Workplace mental health around the world
We understand that healthy workers are safer and usually happier, more productive, and more fulfilled. But why is employee mental health something that companies need to prioritize and embed in their health and safety plans, rather than just think of it as a policy that’s nice to have?
Bad health management — both physical and mental — creates risks for employees. Worker engagement is proven to be better when mental health is something companies prioritize and support.
There are already regulations employers need to comply with to manage workers’ mental health — and more are sure to come. In the last few years, we’ve seen workplace mental health become an important issue within occupational health and sustainability conversations. The global pandemic and subsequent increase in working from home have resulted in more stressed employees, highlighting how mentally healthy workplaces can impact our personal mental health conditions. As a result, we’ve seen a clearer need to mitigate workplace stress and protect the mental health of employees. Going even further than general mental health, some countries have started looking at — and even regulating — psychological health and safety, mental health at work, and workplace stress.
Mental health and psychological safety: What are they and are they different?
While mental health and mental wellbeing are intrinsically connected to psychological health and safety, these terms aren’t necessarily interchangeable.
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines mental health as “a state of wellbeing in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”
Furthermore, “health is a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”
The term “mental wellbeing” describes a state where an individual:
- Feels relatively confident and has positive self-esteem.
- Feels and expresses a range of emotions.
- Builds and maintains good relationships with others.
- Feels engaged with the world around themselves.
- Copes with stress (including work-related stress).
- Can adapt and manage during times of change or uncertainty.
The Harvard Business Review defines psychological safety as a “belief that it’s OK to take risks, to express ideas and concerns, to speak up with questions, and to admit mistakes . . . without fear of negative consequences.”
So, psychological safety describes a team or group culture that can lead to more engaged and motivated teams and better decision-making, whereas worker mental health is more individualized to the employee. In theory, a company that supports individual mental health can also cultivate a psychologically safe workplace.
Both mental health and psychological safety can contribute to a phenomenon we know well: work-related stress. The WHO defines work-related stress as “the response people may have when presented with demands and pressures that are not matched to their abilities, leading to an inability to cope, especially when they feel they have little support from supervisors and little control over work processes.”
Clearly, workplace stress can impact a worker’s mental health and wellbeing as well as impact their feeling of psychological safety. All three of these things (mental health, psychological safety, and work-related stress), if cared for and managed, can create happy, healthy, and productive workplaces. And, conversely, they can cause burnout, increased employee turnover, and create less safe workplaces if employers aren’t mindful of mental health in the workplace.
What are companies legally required to do about employee mental health?
When it comes to protecting employee mental health, some countries have already passed regulations requiring companies to identify, mitigate, and manage psychological risk factors in the workplace. Australia has adopted several requirements and regulations related to workers’ mental health and psychological risks in the workplace. The European Union and some Member States are also moving toward promoting mental health at work and passing regulations around it. Also, in the United States, new regulations and proposals are aimed at reducing stress and improving employee wellbeing at work, even if they are not directly calling out mental health as a driving factor.
Here is a breakdown of some primary examples of nations’ regulations around employee mental health.
In the last few years, Australia has moved toward protecting worker health, including mental health and wellbeing, at the national and state level.
At the national level, on 5 June 2022, the model Work Health and Safety (WHS) Act and Regulations were adopted by Safe Work Australia. The amendments updated definitions of psychosocial hazard and psychosocial risk. According to the WHS Regulations, a “psychosocial hazard” is a hazard that arises from, or relates to, the design or management of work, a work environment, a plant at a workplace, or workplace interactions or behaviors; and may cause psychological harm. Further, “psychosocial risk” means a risk to the health or safety of a worker or other person arising from a psychosocial hazard.
Notably, for the model WHS Act and model WHS Regulations to have effect in an Australian state or territory, they must be enacted in that jurisdiction. With that, several states and territories within the country have started adopting amendments to their health and safety regulations to reflect this change. From this, employers all over Australia may need to consider mental illnesses and the psychological health of their employees going forward.
There are many examples of Australian states and territories adopting regulations and guidance related to psychological risks and mental health.
In New South Wales, as of 1 October 2022, under the Work Health and Safety Amendment Regulation 2022, employers must manage psychosocial risks in the workplace by implementing certain control measures, including having regard to the duration, frequency, and severity of the exposure of workers to psychosocial hazards. Thus, employers are required to control and eliminate, or at least mitigate, risk factors that could cause psychological injury resulting in a healthier and safer workplace.
In Western Australia, as of 24 December 2022, companies must ensure that psychosocial risks in the workplace are managed. Previously this was considered to fall under the general duty of care; however, it has now been itemized as a separate duty.
In Queensland, as of 1 April 2023, the Managing the risk of psychosocial hazards at work Code of Practice (2022) commenced. The Code provides practical guidance for employers on how to comply with their duties relating to the management of psychosocial hazards under Queensland’s work health and safety legislation. It does so by prescribing a four-step risk management approach companies can follow. Under the code, employers are advised to identify, assess, and control the psychosocial hazards in the workplace. Again, the aim is to mitigate those psychosocial hazards and create a more mentally healthy workplace.
Finally, in the Northern Territory, as of 1 July 2023, companies must manage the risks arising from psychosocial hazards in the workplace. Similar to Western Australia, this is an additional duty to the general duty of care and aligns the Northern Territory’s legislation with that of the model WHS Regulations.
In Europe, we’ve seen some regulations and policies come up since the influx of remote working related to the right to disconnect or managing work-life balance. This all can be connected to worker mental health by balancing the amount of time you spend working and respecting your time off, which can lead to improvements in mental health and wellbeing. Now we’re seeing guidance and approaches that more directly address the issue of protecting employee mental health and considering individual mental health conditions.
We’ve also seen “right to disconnect” laws emerging throughout the region. These laws give workers the right to disengage from work and refrain from engaging in work-related electronic communications, such as emails or other messages, during non-working hours. The motivation behind this type of legislation or policy is to protect employees’ mental health and wellbeing and to protect them from psychological risks such as physical fatigue, stress and anxiety, or mental exhaustion, which can result from working overtime. Currently, several European countries — including France, Italy, Spain, and Luxemburg — have legislation that includes the right to disconnect. In other countries, like Germany, companies already implement their own policies around this topic that have the same effect.
Going beyond the right to disconnect, Europe has started looking at other ways to protect workers’ mental health. For instance, on 7 June 2023, the European Commission published its plan for a comprehensive approach to mental health in Europe. The Commission realizes that mental health is fundamental to overall health and recognizes that recent global events have exacerbated the impact mental illness and poor mental health can have on both social and economic issues. The comprehensive approach is based on guiding principles. For example, every EU citizen should have access to high-quality and affordable mental healthcare. The Commission is encouraging Member States to implement initiatives to promote mental health, address discrimination and stigmas related to mental illness, and provide training to promote mental health and wellbeing in the workplace. For employers, this means they will likely see some guidance or even regulations around workplace mental health and mental health issues in the future.
Some Member States have already begun implementing guidance and other things related to mental health support. For example, in Belgium, the National action plan to improve the wellbeing of employees in the execution of their work 2022-2027 was published on 24 March 2022. The National Action Plan identifies the goals it wishes to achieve in the field of wellbeing at work in 2022-2027. These goals to prevent and combat health problems associated with the performance of work will be discussed annually with the social partners of the High Council for Prevention and Protection at Work. Under this scheme, the National Action Plan can be updated to ensure new challenges and unforeseen circumstances are considered. The National Action Plan does not provide requirements applicable to employers yet; however, additional requirements may be developed to implement this plan in the future.
In France, on 23 February 2023, the High Council for Equality between Women and Men (HCE) published the report “For a gender-sensitive implementation of telework,” which identifies the risks that telework presents, specifically for female employees, to fight against degraded working conditions, physical and mental health problems, and from preventing discrimination, sexist or marital violence, all of which can undoubtedly impact an employee’s mental health and mental wellbeing. This report identified several ways remote workers can be negatively impacted by telework and how employers can mitigate some of the risks, including risks to mental health. For example, the HCE recommends preventing risks to employees’ physical and mental health by developing measures to prevent gender-based and sexual violence in telework situations by including a section on domestic violence.
The United States
Apart from providing reasonable accommodations in some cases, there are no mandatory requirements on companies related specifically to protecting employees’ mental health in the US. Still, the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has resources for employers to help manage mental health and workplace stress within the workplace.
Relatedly, in an effort to protect employees, some states are adopting and proposing legislation related to avoiding overworking employees with the explicit goal of reducing injury, but which can also reduce workplace stress. For example, in New York, companies that own or operate a warehouse with 100 or more employees (or multiple warehouses with 1,000 or more employees) must comply with modified quota requirements designed to prevent employees from being overworked to the extent of creating the risk of workplace injury.
Similarly, Washington State adopted the Washington House Bill (HB) 1762. HB 1762, which requires companies that employ 100 or more employees in a single warehouse (or 1,000 or more employees at one or more warehouse distribution centers) in Washington to comply with new requirements designed to protect warehouse employees from being overworked and, therefore, reduce the risk of workplace injuries. For example, employers are required to provide a written description of quotas that employees are subject to, any potential adverse employment action that could result from failing to meet the quota, and any incentives or bonuses associated with meeting the quota.
In 2023, Alaska and Connecticut proposed similar bills with similar thresholds.
In another vein, Massachusetts proposed Bill HD.4267, which would pilot a four-day workweek program in the state. Similarly, at the federal level, H.R. 4728 was proposed, and it would amend the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 to shorten the standard workweek from 40 hours to 32 hours. Although H.R. 4728 was not enacted, its provisions could still be included in a future bill and are indicative of the movement toward work-life balance in the US.
This trend toward shorter workweeks has already started in other places around the world and has been implemented by private companies regardless of legislative changes. Studies around this idea, including a 6-month UK trial, have shown that reducing work hours can decrease employee stress and improve wellbeing without impacting productivity when it’s implemented effectively.
The bills and regulations in the US may not directly state that protecting employee mental health is the goal. But if workloads are managed and even decreased, it makes sense that workers would feel less physical and mental fatigue and less stress and anxiety. Thus, if employers can improve working conditions and workloads without negatively impacting work quality or productivity, that can result in improved mental health for employees.
How does your health and safety culture impact mental health?
Australia has also gone further than just asking companies to look at and address psychological hazards in the workplace. They’ve implemented measures that require companies to address harassment, bullying, and other actions that can lead to toxic work environments, psychological risks, and deterioration in employees’ mental health. These types of initiatives aim to improve the company culture and therefore mitigate risks. For example, in the Australian Capital Territory, as of 11 April 2025, companies and individuals (such as CEOs or sole traders with organizational management responsibility) must comply with a positive duty to eliminate discrimination, sexual harassment, and unlawful vilification.
Also in Australia, on 14 February 2023, the Fair Work Commission ordered an organization’s members to undergo anti-bullying training, to impress upon them what bullying is and its consequences for workers. In particular, the decision reiterated that individuals and groups not “at work” can still be issued orders to stop bullying a worker. This decision serves to remind companies to maintain their anti-bullying and harassment policies in the workplace.
Also, in Denmark, as of 1 July 2023, employers must ensure that the working environment is free from sexual harassment and handle any cases of such behavior in the workplace as part of the obligation to provide equal working conditions for men and women. Moreover, the “smiley scheme” is extended until 1 July 2024, under which managers and employees must report if they become aware of any physical or psychological working environment problems. Under this scheme, the Danish Working Environment Authority awards “smileys” to companies based on inspection visits regarding their compliance with working environment legislation and this information is available to the public.
Another example is in Brazil, where, on 4 April 2023, a proposal was presented that would require telemarketing or call center companies in the State of Pernambuco to implement a hotline for their workers to report situations of sexual harassment, LGBT phobia, and xenophobia that occur during working calls. Although this is limited to specific types of companies, it’s a step toward supporting workers and helping them through situations that could exacerbate mental health issues at work and create toxic work environments.
A final example is in the UK, where guidance was published on 22 March 2023 from which companies can receive updated guidance aiming to protect workers from violence and aggression at work that could affect their physical and mental health. The updated guidance provides up-to-date practical advice (such as taking security measures, including trained security personnel, body-worn cameras, alarm systems, or building security) and clarifies that the definition of violence includes verbal abuses or threats either face-to-face, online, or over the phone. Although the guidance is not binding, it helps companies comply with essential health and safety requirements.
All of these proposals, actions, and guidance aim to protect workers’ mental health by creating more transparent, less stressful, less violent workplaces. In this type of workplace, employees are likely to feel more psychologically safe and supported. Although they are not all mandatory requirements, companies can help protect workers’ mental health and benefit in other ways by creating a culture of safety, including physical and mental safety, for all employees. Companies will already be working toward supporting employee mental health by implementing some of these policies against discrimination, bullying, and harassment.
There are many ways companies can support their employees and mitigate risks to mental health; further, remote workers, hybrid workers, and in-person workers can all be impacted by psychological and psychosocial risks differently. Implementing a mental health program in your company is one way to ensure you’re meeting regulatory requirements and supporting your employees’ mental health. It’s been shown that mental health issues and workplace stress can lead to negative impacts on productivity, motivation of employees, and overall workplace safety.
As a result, companies need to start or continue to develop their health and safety programs and cultures to include the mental health and wellbeing of employees. No matter the motivation to support workers’ mental health in the workplace, the impact is the same: mental health impacts employee safety at work.