How to implement the World Health Organization guidelines on workplace mental health

For a brief moment last month, workplace mental health finally rose to the top of the international agenda. This milestone was reached when the World Health Organization (WHO) released a landmark report report which linked the mental health of individual employees to the workplace and published a plan to help organizations around the world improve the mental health of their staff.

That of the WHO report and accompanying guidance note – issued September 28e – provide a set of evidence-based actions to protect and promote mental health and prevent mental health problems in the workplace. Both come at a critical moment.

A 2021 Lancet A study of 204 countries has found that Covid-19 has generated an unprecedented tsunami of mental health issues. According to figures, the pandemic has caused 53 million additional cases of major depressive disorder and 76 million additional cases of anxiety disorders. Beyond the personal tragedy, the economic cost is staggering – a $1 trillion a year hit to the global economy according to the WHO.

Those of us who saw the challenge ahead are particularly energized by WHO’s bold stance and innovative approaches. Organizations should build on this momentum by putting mental health at the forefront of corporate agendas and prioritizing funding for effective initiatives.

Evidence-based recommendations and tactics should guide leadership in measuring workplace mental health progress over time to achieve tangible results. For this reason, Columbia University, Ethisphere and One Mind have developed a standardized assessment tool – aligned with WHO global guidelines and standards – which allows organizations to benchmark their programs and services.

Where should companies start when it comes to implementing WHO guidelines?

In its report, the WHO made 12 recommendations to help align organizations to promote mental health; train managers and workers to identify and respond to mental health issues; and implement specific interventions to make workplaces more conducive to employee well-being. These include:

· Organizational interventions to reduce emotional distress, enable reasonable work accommodations, address workload and scheduling challenges, and improve communication, teamwork, and work-related outcomes.

· Training for managers and workers to improve knowledge, attitudes and behaviors with regard to mental health; reduce stigma; and improve the skills needed to ask for help and use resources.

· Initiatives that promote mindfulness and well-being, such as creating opportunities for physical activity, stress management, self-care, communication skills and problem solving.

· Measures to help workers return to work after dealing with mental health issues and to accommodate more employees who are living with mental health issues.

The WHO guidelines are groundbreaking both for their novelty and their use of evidence-based interventions. It is both a strength and an opportunity. Researchers can and should offer recommendations based on the best scientific evidence. But employers can test these approaches in the workplace and provide insights that only hands-on experience can provide.

This is why public-private partnerships are essential for applying scientific research to real-world challenges and developing best practices that can be used by organizations around the world. Additionally, these best practices have the potential to adapt globally to environmental, social and governance (ESG) frameworks – integrating mental health, DE&I and neurodiversity. This combined effort can catalyze action, drive change, and provide the most effective mental health strategies.

WHO’s landmark report asserts that promoting mental health is the collective responsibility of every organization – a deeply held belief that drives all our efforts to A spirit at work. By creating and maintaining a mentally healthier environment, organizations are setting the stage for a new kind of workplace. We look forward to working with organizations looking to put these recommendations into practice and take a crucial step towards creating a workplace where all workers can thrive.

Aubrey L. Morgan