UN calls for safeguarding mental health on the job, lays down guidelines to tackle stress at workplace


The United Nations has raised alarm over the psychological strains linked to the workplace and said that a lot needs to be done to safeguard mental health on the job. Presenting new guidelines on the matter, the UN agencies for health and labour published two documents with advice on how best to prevent and protect against mental health risks at work, warning that psychological distress is costly for individuals and society alike. 

An estimated 12 billion work days are lost every year due to depression and anxiety, costing the global economy nearly $1 trillion, the World Health Organization and the International Labour Organization said.

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“It’s time to focus on the detrimental effect work can have on our mental health. The well-being of the individual is reason enough to act, but poor mental health can also have a debilitating impact on a person’s performance and productivity,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a joint statement.

WHO had cautioned in June that nearly one billion people globally were living with a mental disorder before COVID-19 hit, and the pandemic made it worse.

Working-age adults form a huge chunk of it, with one in six suffering from a mental disorder at any given time, the WHO said. The workplace itself is often a trigger for mental health woes, the two agencies warned.

“The numbers are alarming. We have a huge responsibility ahead of us,” Manal Azzi, the ILO team lead on occupational safety and health, told reporters. 

It also released a report complete with guidelines on how to counter the problem. One of it says that giving the employee meaningful work can protect mental wellbeing, providing a sense of accomplishment, confidence and earnings.

However, harmful or poor working conditions, poor working relationships and unemployment “can significantly contribute to worsening mental health or exacerbate existing mental health conditions”. Discrimination based on gender, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation and disability can negatively affect mental health, it stated.

The guidelines also talked of the importance of practices like mindfulness and physical activity to help manage stress better.

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They, however, state that the biggest point of action is “organisational interventions” as they can prevent risks to mental health at work. This includes for the first time recommending training managers to prevent stressful work environments and respond to workers in distress.

Aiysha Malik, from the WHO’s mental health and substance use department, told reporters it was essential to “stop people from experiencing risks such as very heavy workloads… being bullied, difficult relationships with colleagues or supervisors.”

That needs to change, she said, or we will continue “experiencing difficulties with our mental health at work, no matter how many stress-management tools” we apply.

(With inputs from agencies)


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