The World Health Organisation (WHO) on Tuesday in Abuja urged employers globally to treat mental health illnesses with the same urgency and seriousness as physical illnesses.
Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO regional director for Africa, gave the advice in a message to mark the 2017 World Mental Health Day celebrated annually on October 10.
Moeti said mental health is often neglected as a key aspect of employees’ health, adding that an estimated 10 per cent of the employed population globally had taken time off work because of depression.
She urged employers to be change agents by modifying risk factors for stress in the workplace, create an organisational climate that promotes wellbeing, creativity and facilitate care for those who need it.
Moeti also urged employees to take steps to learn the signs and symptoms of a mental health problem and engage in prevention including talking about it.
“The relationship between workplace stress and poor mental health is well established but mental health is often neglected as a key aspect of employee health,” she said.
“Globally, an estimated 10 per cent of the employed population has taken time off work for depression, and an average of 36 work days are lost when a worker gets depressed.
“Symptoms such as difficulties in concentrating and making decisions cause significant impairment in productivity at work.
“At least 50 per cent of people with depression do not receive treatment. In the African region, lack of information, stigma and cultural issues are significant barriers that prevent people from seeking help.
“Although equal opportunity laws for people with disability in the workplace exist in many countries, mental illness is associated with the greatest disadvantage in terms of employment rates.
“Social acceptance of people with mental health illnesses has not improved much in the last 20 years.”
Moeti called for individual and collective efforts toward addressing the causes and consequences of work-related stress.
She recommended mental health friendly workplace programmes and practices that promote employees’ wellness and work-life balance.
Moeti reiterated the critical impact of mental health problems on economic development, saying that productivity losses from absenteeism was substantial and appeared to be increasing.
According to Moeti, work-related stress costs global society billions of dollars annually in direct and indirect costs.
“There is a strong economic case to tackle not only employer stigma but also to invest in mental health promotion, prevention and treatment programmes in the workplace,” she said.
“Treating anxiety, depression and other mental health disorders is an affordable, cost effective way to promote wellbeing and prosperity.
“Up to 80 per cent of those treated improve usually within four to six weeks; depression is preventable and treatable if diagnosed early.
“World Mental Health Day is an opportunity to start conversations about mental health in the workplace to promote best practice, decrease negative attitudes and empower individuals.
“Since most working people spend over 60 per cent of their wake hours at work, mental health at work is the heart of daily social interactions.”
Moeti said that mental health was one of WHO priorities and urged countries to promote mental health in the workplace and build broad coalitions to promote best practice.