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       Hazards, number 159, 2022
UNRAVELLING | Mental health at work is a trade union issue
Whether it is work, life outside work or a combination that is getting you down, mental health can be a big issue on the job. Hazards editor Rory O’Neill says two new sources highlight how unions can play a critical role in supporting affected workers and can ensure work doesn’t cause problems or make them worse.


It is a growing global concern and is leading to calls for dramatic new protections.
And it has prompted the United Nations agencies with responsibility for employment and health – the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) – to prepare their first ever joint policy brief on good practice on mental health at work.

OFF DAY An Australian Unions prescription for mentally healthy work, Four tips for taking a mental health day, says you be as comfortable taking a sick day for stress, anxiety or depression as workplace injury or illness. More.

The policy brief notes 11 per cent of depression worldwide is attributable to occupational risks, with 12 billion working days lost worldwide every year to depression and anxiety.

“For all workers, safe and healthy working environments are not only a fundamental right, but are also more likely to improve work performance and productivity, improve staff retention and minimise tension and conflict,” it notes.

The ILO/WHO policy brief has four key messages:

  • Prevent work-related mental health conditions through psychosocial risk management, which includes using organisational interventions to reshape working conditions, cultures, and relationships.
  • Protect and promote mental health at work, especially through training and interventions that improve mental health literacy and strengthen skills to recognise and act on mental health conditions at work, empowering workers to identify mental health issues at work and to seek support and care early.
  • Support workers with mental health conditions to fully and equitably participate in work through reasonable accommodations, return-to-work programmes and supported employment initiatives.
  • Create an enabling environment with cross-cutting actions to improve mental health at work through: Leadership, investment, rights, integration, participation, evidence and compliance.

The UN agencies note that while decent work “can positively influence mental health”, bad work can be really bad for you, stating “unemployment or unstable or precarious employment, discrimination in the workplace or poor working environments can all be a source of stress and pose a risk to mental health. Unemployment, job and financial insecurity and recent job loss are known risk factors for suicide attempts.”

Treat us right

It is also about fairness. “Inequality and unequal treatment can manifest through inequity in earnings, opportunities or respect at work,” the new ILO/WHO brief notes.

“Some people can face discrimination at work because of their race, sex, gender identity or expression, disability, sexual orientation, social origin (such as class or caste), migrant status, religion or age (or any other social characteristic), putting them at increased risk of work-related stress or compounding the impact of existing mental health conditions.”

EVERY WORKPLACE  Psychosocial hazards at work can be a problem in any job, from making steel bars to bar work. Preventive action ‘should prioritise collective measures’, says ILO/WHO.

On the bad jobs are bad for you theme, it adds “how the job is designed, including high job demands, low job control (ie. low authority to make decisions about work), unclear roles can all exacerbate work-related stress and heighten the risk of exhaustion, burnout, anxiety, and depression.

"Psychosocial risks at work are associated with negative mental health outcomes, including suicidal behaviours. Violence and harassment at work, including bullying, also violate human rights and undermines mental and physical health.”

The changing nature of work – new technologies, climate change, globalisation and other factors, including the pandemic – “have created new psychosocial risks or exacerbated existing ones. For many, these changes resulted in loss of earnings,” the ILO/WHO briefing notes.  “Likewise, crises such as conflict profoundly disrupt where, how and whether people are able to work.”

Unions are critical

The ILO/WHO policy brief calls on employers to step up – and to involve union reps. “Activities to improve mental health at work should prioritise collective measures and should be based on a sound risk assessment and management process, done with the meaningful involvement of workers and their representatives,” it notes.

HANGING AROUND  Too much work, too little work, too little control. Badly designed work can stress you out and make you sick. Unions can give back essential control over what you do at work and how you do it – and be a protective buffer between an affected worker and management.

“In particular, workers and their representatives should be involved in the identification of psychosocial hazards at work and should be informed and trained about the measures adopted to prevent the associated risks.”

It adds: “Circumstances which may elicit risks such as restructuring, or changes in staffing, processes, work methods or other substantive matters at work, should be managed in a way to prevent or minimise psychosocial risks… For employers, it is important to have a specific policy or plan for protecting and promoting mental health at work, which should be integrated into the OSH [occupational safety and health] management system.”

Mental health at work: Policy brief, ILO/WHO, 28 September 2022. www.ilo.org


Have a nice day - off!

Australian Unions have written their own prescription for mentally healthy work. Integral to the plan is that “employers and workers alike need to take mental wellbeing just as seriously as we would physical health.” The union body’s August 2022 guide, Four tips for taking a mental health day, says you should no more be expected to work through stress, anxiety or depression than through a workplace injury or illness, advising:

1. Know your rights A mental health day counts like a ‘sick day’. You have a right to be absent from work if you are unwell.  A discount on yoga classes doesn’t cut it. And cut-price gym membership is no use if you can’t cover the cost of the groceries, gas and electric and you are anyway working most waking hours.

2. Build immunity to guilt-tripping  Don’t let your boss guilt-trip you into working. “If they’re short-staffed, that’s on them,” the Australian Unions guide says. It adds: “You are not obliged to tell your employer your personal medical situation (and a decent employer won’t ask you).” In the UK, the government says: “Employees can take time off work if they’re ill. They need to give their employer proof if they’re ill for more than 7 days,” in the form of a doctor’s sicknote or ‘fit note’.    

3. Stay offline “Don’t work. No seriously, don’t,” states Australian Unions. “Switch off work notifications on your phone. Resist the urge to check emails. Not only is it your right to disconnect while on personal leave, but it’ll also help you relax and recharge. Even if you’re working from home, it is still worth taking the day off. Whether you’re at home or not doesn’t change the fact you’re unwell.” It adds:  Plugging into work from home instead of taking a mental health day is just another form of presenteeism that may lead to worse mental wellbeing.”

4. Put in prevention measures  “If you find your mental health is deteriorating due to work, there is something you can do about it,” advises the union body. “All employers have a duty of care to provide and maintain a safe working environment – and those responsibilities are just as important whether it is to protect physical or mental health. That means identifying work-related hazards that could lead to poor mental health for workers.” It adds: “As a first step, it’s worth chatting to your health and safety representative at work about your concerns.”

The guide says psychological hazards can be a little tricker to identify than physical hazards. To address this, Australian unions has a parallel Mind Your Head campaign with resources for workers looking to ensure a healthy workplace. It notes: “Are you stressed because you’re not sure what your responsibilities are at work? Or do you feel constantly in a churn because of frequent structural changes? 

“Whether it be low role clarity, poor organisational change management or vicarious trauma, Mind Your Head has articulated everyday workplace experiences that may negatively affect our mental health that may not always be easy for us to identify and put into words.”

In its online prevention advice, Mind Your Head lists 11 of the most common workplace mental health hazards: High and low job demands; low job control; poor organisational change management; poor support; violent or traumatic events; remote or isolated work; poor workplace relationships; low role clarity or role conflict; poor organisational justice; low recognition and reward; and poor environmental conditions.

• Mind Your Head guidance booklet, providing information on how to minimise risk, and what to do if someone is harmed by psychosocial risks at work.

Mind Your Head checklist for union health and safety reps to help them conduct risk assessments in their workplaces.


Australian UnionsMind your head

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Whether it is work, life outside work or a combination that is getting you down, mental health can be a big issue on the job. But Hazards editor Rory O’Neill says two new sources highlight how unions can play a critical role in supporting affected workers and can ensure work doesn’t cause problems or make them worse.

Treat us right
Unions are critical

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