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What price redemption for a mentally sick workplace?

Date posted
12 May 2023
Ivan Williams Jimenez
Estimated reading time
4 minute read

IOSH’s Dr Ivan Williams Jimenez looks at the growing problem of mental ill-health at work and what needs to be done to address it.

“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery,” sang Bob Marley in Redemption Song, “none but ourselves can free our minds.” It’s a stirring lyric though, of course, not so easy to achieve – especially without the support of others.

Addressing the World Economic Forum early this year, the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, emphasised how good work can protect people’s mental health, providing a sense of identity and purpose, income and, for those with mental health conditions, promote recovery and inclusion in the community.

Yet he also highlighted how workplaces can negatively affect our mental health through bullying and harassment, precarious work and discrimination, racism, sexual violence, heavy workloads, underpayment, toxic cultures and more.

A staggering 12 billion working days are lost every year to depression and anxiety, a figure that is likely to increase in the current context of global economic recession now aggravated by multiple crises, namely concerning the cost-of-living and inflation. As well the sadness this brings to individual workers and their families, it also costs the global economy $1 trillion in lost productivity, plus the global direct and indirect economic costs of mental disorders. So, while the WHO is firmly signed up to last summer’s formal adoption by the International Labour Organization of a safe and health working environment as a fundamental principle and right, it knows making this a reality to be a real challenge.

The scale of the challenge comes into sharper focus when, in the UK alone, one thinks of some high-profile establishment institutions that should be setting an example and leading the way yet have come under scrutiny for allegedly failing to safeguard those who work for and with them.

Working days lost

The most recent AXA/Mind Health Study, which sampled 30,000 people aged 18-74 from 16 European, Asian and American countries, estimated 28.3 million working days were lost worldwide last year due to mental ill-health. Nearly half (47 per cent) of the UK population was said to be not currently in a positive state of mental wellbeing and at risk of burnout and mental exhaustion.

With a cost-of-living crisis hurting, almost every other person (46 per cent) interviewed was said to be feeling overwhelmed and uncertain about the future. This can result in a life-threatening situation for young workers, older workers, female workers, frontline workers and workers from vulnerable disadvantaged groups, including precariously employed people and employees returning to work after experiencing mental health issues or a time of sickness absence related to mental health.

But it was encouraging to see the report suggest that mental health support at work makes a significant difference, with those supported said to be twice as likely to be happy and three and a half times more likely to be ‘flourishing’ (that’s happier, healthier and more productive).

A prevention-orientated approach

In our response to the European Commission consultation on mental health (A comprehensive approach to mental health), IOSH called for early intervention through a prevention-orientated approach that looks to incorporate mental health in all areas of Commission policy and supports governments, workplaces and communities to help people with mental health conditions participate in and thrive at work.

A greater emphasis on prevention would see, for example:

  • regulators plan, promote and implement support within the workplace to drive positive mental health
  • work-related psychosocial risks linked to organisational and managerial practices being given the same attention as risks to physical safety and occupational health
  • regulatory frameworks being enhanced to improve the prevention and mitigation of mental health risks and provide support packages for vulnerable groups
  • a key role being played by occupational safety and health (OSH) professionals and occupational health services in developing a sustainable, healthy, safe and productive workforce
  • more help being given to small and medium-sized businesses to support their employees’ mental health
  • greater mental health literacy through the promotion and awareness of the value of worker health and wellbeing.

While employers have a legal and moral duty to look after their staff, the social sustainability and bottom-line benefits to their organisation of making this investment stand to be huge. The savings from fewer sick days, reduced presenteeism and lower staff turnover are obvious to business performance and the economy. The potential boost to staff morale, teamwork and productivity may be less immediate, yet likely to be positively off the scale.

At a time of global recession, cost of living crisis and a shrinking labour market, we have to tackle this global problem of mental ill-health – for the sake of workers, businesses, employers and society. This is hurting all of us.

Last updated: 31 January 2024

Ivan Williams Jimenez

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