By Dévora Kestel, Director, Mental Health and Substance Abuse, World Health Organization

For much of our adult lives, we spend many of our waking hours at work. During recent years, our working environments have changed in ways that would have been difficult to imagine a generation ago. New communications technologies and expanding access to the internet enable us to work outside of the workplace at pretty much any time of the day or night; increasing competition from around the world has led to increasing pressure for cost efficiencies and higher productivity; and moving between organizations and even industries is now commonplace.

Changing working environments undoubtedly bring opportunities, for professional development, expanding networks and innovation. The extent and pace of change can, however, when coupled with a working environment that doesn’t take account of people’s mental well-being, lead to physical and mental health problems, harmful use of substances or alcohol, absenteeism and lost productivity. Indeed, the lost productivity resulting from depression and anxiety, two of the most common mental disorders, is estimated to cost the global economy US$ 1 trillion each year.

There are many factors that can influence the mental health of employees. Organizational issues include poor communication and management practices, limited participation in decision-making, long or inflexible working hours and lack of team cohesion. Bullying and psychological harassment are also commonly reported causes of work-related stress. Working environments where rapid, life-saving decisions need to be made, for example by first responders in emergencies, or where people are working far from home in emotionally-charged situations, common for humanitarian workers, also come with their own challenges.

Fortunately, there is a growing recognition among large institutions and companies that the mental well-being of employees has a positive impact on organizational success as well as on employee health, professional fulfilment and quality of life.

Excellent work has already been done to steer efforts in the right direction. The World Economic Forum convened experts from across the world of business, academia and mental health to develop a seven-step guide towards a mentally healthy organization. The European Union, through its Compass for Action on Mental Health and Well-being, included a focus on mental health at work, and the UK organization Time to Change is working with more than 800 employers to help change attitudes about mental health in the workplace. These are just a few initiatives which show the growing attention being paid to the importance of mental health in many areas of life.

What is missing, however, is global guidance to help organizations ensure that the programmes and interventions they introduce are based on the best-available evidence for the mental health of employees and can be used by organizations in countries of all income levels. This is where the World Health Organization comes in. In 2019, we plan to begin development of a guideline on mental health in the workplace, working closely with the Wellcome Trust, the International Labour Organization and organizations that have already accumulated vast experience in this area. We anticipate that the guideline will address not only the psychological support that is required to help prevent, manage and overcome mental health conditions faced by people in the workplace but also the organizational and managerial systems that are conducive to the mental well-being of employees and to successful organizations. I am confident that this new impetus for workplace well-being will be another, important step towards better mental health for all people, everywhere.

Mental health in the workplace:

Seven actions towards a mentally healthy organization: