This story was written by the ILO Newsroom For official ILO statements and speeches, please visit our “Statements and Speeches” section.


Mental ill-health at the workplace: Don’t let stigma be our guide

Providing support, rather than excluding them from the workplace and keeping them on lifelong benefits, is the best way to help workers experiencing mental disorders.

Feature | 31 October 2014
Les and Dave Jacobs / Image Source
GENEVA (ILO News) – Mental ill-health has always been a difficult topic to address in the world of work due to the stigma and fears associated with it.

“Mental ill-health” does not only refer to severe pathologies, but also to common disorders such as depression, anxiety, job strain or “burn out” cases that can be properly treated if handled correctly.

“In most cases, providing support to affected workers so that they can keep their job, or go back to work if they took leave of absence, is a much better solution than excluding them from the workplace and keeping them forever on sickness or disability benefits,” says Shruti Singh, an OECD labour market economist.

Singh is one of the participants at this week’s event focusing on how to make workplaces inclusive for people with disabilities. The event, organized by the ILO Global Business and Disability Network, brings together representatives from multinational companies, as well as disability and labour market specialists.

Around 20 per cent of the working-age population in an average OECD country is suffering from a mental disorder at any given moment, according to Singh. “This implies that the risk of experiencing mental ill-health during a career is high for everyone.”

The risk of experiencing mental ill-health during a career is high for everyone."
Identifying mental disorders such as depression and providing support early on is essential. But it is also one of the most challenging steps, because mental ill-health is often hidden and because the causes might differ a lot, ranging from personal problems at home to childhood trauma or work-related stress.

“Also, the fear of being rejected or stigmatized by their company or co-workers makes it very hard for people to open up to their line managers,” explains the ILO’s Senior Disability Specialist Stefan Tromel, who is also taking part in the event.

“Many workers experiencing mental disorders do not take sick leave when they really need to. As a result, their productivity drops and this becomes a problem for the company,” he adds.

Raising awareness

With proper training and better awareness, managers can play a key role in dealing with mental health issues in the workplace. By identifying early signs of mental ill-health they can engage in dialogue with the affected staff, even without waiting for them to speak openly about their illness.

“Depending on where and how the problem originates, managers can help someone go through a difficult time by guaranteeing confidentiality and by providing them with accommodations to their schedule or work environment whenever possible. Engaging into such a dialogue can prevent long periods of sick leave or the risk of losing a talented staff member,” says Tromel.

“Systematic monitoring of sick-leave behaviour with return-to-work support is essential, combined with good quality jobs and better working conditions,” adds Singh.

It is also important for companies to have access to information on mental health issues in the workplace.

Even though the stigma associated with these issues is still high, efforts are being made to better inform managers.

Singh highlights the UK as an example, where awareness of the negative impact of mental ill-health has reached a high level through a multi-year research agenda. Anti-stigma campaigns have also been used extensively and included top managers publicly disclosing that they have suffered from depression or other forms of mental disorder at some point in their life as a way of encouraging workers to open up.

Keeping people employed rather than on benefits

The situation of workers who became unemployed after losing their jobs due to mental disorders is also a case for concern.

“People with common mental disorders are 2-3 times more likely to be unemployed than people with no such disorders,” says Singh. Long term unemployment is a common problem, which leads them to become discouraged and eventually withdrawing from the labour market.

People with common mental disorders are 2-3 times more likely to be unemployed than people with no such disorders."
“It is crucial to encourage people to get back to work instead of being kept on benefits for years on end,” adds the ILO’s Stefan Tromel. “When someone needs to stop working because he or she is too sick to carry on, companies should be encouraged to keep in touch with them and look at the possibility of having them back once they recover.”

But the lack of awareness is not limited to the world of work. Singh points out that social protection schemes are often too quick to classify a benefit claimant with a mental disorder as unfit for work.

“Young adults with a mental disorder are often granted disability benefits when they should be helped into employment,” she says.

A much better option would be to reassess the situation on a regular basis to help them exit disability benefits because they recovered or because they find a job that suits their disability.

A long way to go in developing countries

While awareness around mental ill-health issues is slowly increasing in industrialized countries, there is still a long way to go in developing countries. And this not only applies to the workplace but to society at large.

“Due to the lack of information and the multiplicity of occupational health issues in developing countries, stigma related to mental disorders is also high, so it will take a long time and effort for progress to be made,” concludes Tromel.