MAKE A DIFFERENCE | workplace culture / mental health / wellbeing

What’s New in 2021: WHO Guidelines for Mental Health and Work

The WHO guidelines for Mental Health at Work are due to be launched towards the end of 2021. This follows the work of a group of global mental health experts, who were chosen to take part in the project earlier this year.

While still in the initial stages, this is a great movement for the mental health sector and mental health in the workplace community.

The fact that WHO is committing to the guidelines strengthens the importance of making the mental health of employees a priority – particularly given the impact that the global pandemic has had on employee mental health. 

A recent Deloitte study found that poor mental health is currently costing UK employers alone £45billion per year. It also found that for every £1 spent by employers on mental health interventions they get £5 back in reduced absence, presenteeism and staff turnover.

The WHO guidelines will at last provide policy and regulation around the topic that is set to become one of the top priorities for business in 2021 – with WHO leading a thorough and academic research- based mental health global review.

The facts

The WHO Mental Health Action Plan (2013-2030) sets a global objective for mental health promotion and prevention. The WHO Global Strategy on Health, Environment, and Climate Change (2019) identifies workplaces as an essential setting for the prevention of a range of modifiable risks, particularly for noncommunicable diseases.

As part of this, the 2019 UNGA political declaration of the High-Level Meeting on Universal Health Coverage committed to:

  • measures to promote and improve mental health services and care;
  • the scale up of efforts to provide healthier and safer workplaces, including access to occupational health services; and ensuring health coverage for all workers.

Work, including working conditions, is one of the key social determinants of mental ill health. Unemployment is a well-recognized risk factor for poor mental health and the global pandemic has highlighted the unequal effects that level of income has on mental health.

As well as this, WHO will be be looking at other factors that contribute to mental ill heath in the workplace, including societal challenges, discrimination and inequality, or societal risks such as economic recession.

The workplace influences the risk of mental health conditions and can also be a platform for intervening for improved mental health – including for the prevention of substance use disorders and suicide.

Implications for decision-makers

The WHO guidelines for mental health and work will provide decision-makers with interventions and approaches based on evidence. WHO has initiated the process to develop a WHO Guideline including evidence-based recommendations for the promotion of mental wellbeing and the prevention and treatment of mental health conditions (including suicide and substance use disorders) in workers.

Recommendations will take into consideration values, preferences, feasibility, acceptability, sustainability, equity and human rights. Use of the recommendations will facilitate national and workplace-level policy development and service planning and delivery in the mental health and occupational health domains. It will also seek to improve the implementation of evidence-based interventions for the mental health of workers.

It will be fantastic to see the WHO global guidelines for workplace mental health launched next year. 2020 has been a pivotal time for the mental health sector. I believe that the long-term impact of collective stress and trauma will affect us long after the initial pandemic dies down.

I can foresee lots of emotional burnout for those in the helping professions, physical burnout with symptoms of low-level depression and anxiety for many professions as well as an increase in mental health diagnosis. 

But it’s not all doom and gloom. I also foresee the long-term effects of open conversations about mental health at work globally, senior leaders understanding the business case for creating mentally healthy work cultures and ongoing sustainable mental health strategies bolstering up the workforce and economy over time. 

This however is nothing new. We have already been in a mental health crisis for over a decade. Many people just haven’t wanted to see or listen to the vastly shocking statistics starting with our young people.

Depression is now the leading cause of disability worldwide. While it is great to have professional organisations like WHO driving global programmes it mustn’t stop there. We too need to take ownership for the conversations we have and the stigmatised view we continue to carry of people with a diagnosis.  We also need to challenge the polarising influence of social media and lean into community in order to be successful.

About the author

Petra Velzeboer’s expertise and passion stems from her own personal experience battling mental illness and struggling with cultural and circumstantial challenges. After being raised in a religious cult without any access to formal education, her story and climb from rock bottom have inspired thousands to better understand how to improve mental health for themselves and others.

She earned her MSc in Psychodynamics of Human Development in 2012 and went on to become an ORSC & CTI Certified Coach. As a member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, Petra has a wealth of knowledge and experience in helping teams and individuals overcome mental health issues. To find out more about Petra’s workplace mental health strategy support please visit petravelzeboer.com