Why the ILO is right to prioritise mental health

Managing partner, Park Health and Safety Partnership

28 April was the International Labour Organization’s World Day for Safety and Health at Work, promoting the prevention of occupational accidents and diseases. This is an awareness raising campaign, intended to focus international attention on emerging trends in the OSH field.

This year the campaign concentrated on workplace stress and was a reminder (if we needed it) that mental ill-health in the workplace is even more of a “Cinderella” subject than health in general.

According to the charity MIND, one in six people at work in the UK is dealing with a mental health problem such as anxiety, depression or stress. The arguments for addressing physical ill-health: preventing the loss of skills; the desirability of supporting colleagues; a business case; and human solidarity – apply equally to mental ill-health.

There is one other factor: when someone is injured or physically unwell, it is common to define a threshold of fitness that they must reach before they may continue their rehabilitation at work. For lower back pain and some other musculoskeletal problems, keeping active is a crucial part of minimising pain and shortening the recovery time. With mental ill-health, this continued activity is crucial for many people because the structure of daily work, the social interactions with colleagues, customers and others is essential if they are to recover or at least learn the skills to manage their condition and function effectively.

It is hard to see how staying at home, often alone, with the dubious comforts of daytime television, is conducive to anyone recovering their mental wellbeing.

In some sectors, the problems of mental ill-health are stark. In Australia the campaign Mates in Construction was set up to address the high suicide rate among young men in the industry. There have also been concerns expressed for many years about the pressures on and social isolation of many in the farming sector and their consequences in damaged and even lost lives.

Early safety regulation was inspired by anecdote – stories and experiences of accidents gave rise to legislation and safer practices. We discovered rather late, to the cost of workers exposed to health risks, that only an analytical approach that evaluated hidden harms and long-term risks would prompt the management of those risks as well.

The same analysis that shows clearly that accidents cause much less harm than workplace health hazards is increasingly revealing that if we focus only on physical health, we are dealing with only half of the impact on our organisations and on our colleagues.

Many workplaces are havens from the stresses and strains of family life, money worries and other issues that can create the context for periods of mental ill-health.

But with more effort, we can make workplaces the best places to sustain people, to provide the support needed for them to stay well or, when ill-health strikes, for them to recover.

The ILO’s choice of stress as a focal point is appropriate and timely.


Lawrence Waterman OBE CFIOSH is managing partner at the Park Health and Safety Partnership, and was formerly head of health and safety for the London Olympic Delivery Authority. He is past president of IOSH.

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