Over the past couple of years, mental health has come to the forefront as the ripple effects of the pandemic shone a staggering light on the different challenges people were facing. According to a study by the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly one in five U.S. adults suffered from mental illness in 2019, and the numbers increased when the pandemic hit in 2020, abruptly pushing many into a long period of isolation, unemployment, and illness. As the world is trying to reconstruct and reshape the life it once knew before the pandemic, conversations around mental health are taking place with renewed importance inside homes, schools, and the workplace.
The World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO) recently published their first-ever global guidelines on mental health and work, which aim to inform businesses about ensuring safe and supportive working conditions that promote mental health. These guidelines are a much-needed contribution to the workplace environment, particularly for Occupational Health and Safety (OH&S) professionals.Benefits of the WHO and ILO Guidelines in the Workplace
The OH&S field’s focus has always been the safety, health, and welfare of people at work; however, concerns around mental health have traditionally been brushed to the side in favor of more tangible physical safety. According to the United States Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s standard under 1904.5(b)(2), employees can bring concerns about mental illness to their managers; however, employees cannot prove their concerns are work-related without a doctor’s confirmation note. Acquiring that kind of proof is even more difficult considering the historical lack of access to sufficient mental health experts and resources across the U.S.
These new WHO and ILO guidelines would enable a safe space for employees while simultaneously destigmatizing mental illness in the workplace. These new guidelines are also particularly important at a time when the economy is entering a shift towards what some may think is a recession and prolonged period of economic uncertainty.
Research has linked economic recessions and financial turmoil with a rise in mental health issues. During the Great Recession in 2007 – 2009, the loss of a job increased the risk of a mood disorder in the U.S. by 22%. In the new WHO and ILO guidelines, it is stated that rates of already-common conditions such as depression and anxiety went up by more than 25% in the first year of the pandemic, adding to the nearly one billion people who were already living with mental disorders.
Organizations must be equipped to help their employees with issues concerning mental health, and these guidelines are a strong first step to helping companies navigate challenging years ahead.
Beyond the Guidelines: An Emphasis on Leadership Accountability
The new WHO and ILO guidelines calls out great actionable steps for companies to take into consideration and address the misconception that companies should focus on individuals rather than deliver broader organizational improvements around mental health. While the guidelines presented are a great step in the right direction, it is also important to recognize what else can be done to ensure that mental health issues are considered and taken seriously within the workplace – especially at the leadership level.
Managers and executive leadership play a huge role in setting the tone of the workplace environment. That is why the onus should be on leadership concerning mental health at work because it is their responsibility to safeguard and cultivate a safe space for employees to thrive in the workplace. When employees are dismissed or their concerns are not considered, that creates a trickle-down effect that results in employees leaving the workplace in droves.
People managers need to reevaluate how they manage the workforce and consider using more of their soft skills. Managers are often promoted solely for their professional capabilities, with little consideration given to their people management abilities – a soft skill that is often overlooked. Seeing mental health awareness and training included as a key criterion for promotion eligibility would be one way that WHO and ILO could encourage a true change in how organizations deal with mental health in the workplace.
Actively Taking the Right Step Towards a Change in the Workplace
For the last several decades, business leaders’ lack of awareness and knowledge have contributed to the stereotypes and fear around mental health. Now that mental health is being discussed more, it creates opportunities for new learnings and understanding on the topic, especially in the workplace. To really see mental health taken seriously within the workplace, everyone within the organization will need to adopt a new attitude and approach toward mental health to ensure that it is continuously promoted and protected within the workplace.
The new WHO and ILO guidelines are a great step in the right direction – but there is more work to do. Hopefully, these new guidelines will influence new and further developments around mental health across industries, promoting awareness and the need for change.
Kate Field is Global Head of Health, Safety, and Well-being at BSI