World Mental Health Day

Remarks by ILO Director-General Guy Ryder at an event to mark World Mental Health Day: “Mental health in the Workplace”

Statement | 11 October 2017
Good afternoon everybody. Thank you for joining us for this event marking World Mental Health Day, a day dedicated more specifically to mental health in the workplace. I think that this is an issue which merits the attention of us all and most specifically the increased attention of the International Labour Organization.

Can I also welcome the presence amongst us of the Ambassador of Portugal who along with our colleagues from Brazil have played a very important role in bringing these issues to the forefront in the international community. We thank you for that, Ambassador, and for your presence.

Colleagues:

I'm somewhat hesitant, but I'm going to start with some of the numbers, some of the figures on the costs of mental health problems at work. I'm somewhat hesitant because we should not be measuring the problem in terms of economic cost. We should be measuring it in terms of human experience. We should, as with all issues of human health, be dealing with these issues in terms of personal well-being, personal welfare. But the fact of the matter, having said that, is that the purely economic costs of mental health problems are just enormous.

In my own country [the United Kingdom], as I was reading just yesterday, no fewer than 15 million working days were lost last year as a consequence of anxiety and depression and other mental health conditions. In the industrialized world of the OECD, the cost is estimated at around 3.5 per cent of GDP. So for those who need convincing that there is a very strong connection and correlation between mental wellbeing at work and economic efficiency the success of enterprises, well the figures show the real story.

And at a time when the ILO is on the eve of its centenary, I have been struck by the mental health issues in the future of work. As we look ahead, some quite alarming comments and analyses are being made. One of the most sophisticated perspectives on the future of work, in my view at least, comes from Germany in their White Paper on “Reimagining Work.” And this is their conclusion in respect of the issues that we've come here to talk about today. Their conclusion is that, and I quote: “it is clear that there has been a sharp rise in mental illness in recent years.” This is in the German world of work – in parallel with the progressive transformation of the world of work.

And here's the point: the direction that the world of work is taking, the transformative impact of technology new methods of work etc. appears to increase the risks of exposure to vulnerability to mental health conditions. That's because of the increasing lack of clarity between where private responsibilities end and professional responsibilities start; the fact that people are having to work in increasingly complex work environments where cognitive issues are ever more important. People find it more and more difficult to balance private and public responsibilities. This situation, this environment means that if we were not already focussing to the extent that we should on mental health issues at work, given all of the dynamics of change taking place, we need to do so right now and I think this is of the most fundamental importance.

The ILO has dual responsibilities in this regard. We have the responsibility, like, I hope, any other organization, as an employer to ensure that the work environment, the working methods, the way management behaves, is both sensitive to mental health issues and supportive of situations in which people feel comfortable, feel supported, feel assisted at work and we have a number of structures and responsibilities in place to make sure that that is the case.

I don't want to claim they're perfect, but I do think that the ILO can claim that in these matters we take the issues seriously. We are, I think, making significant efforts to address them. But it's not perfect and we know that mental health issues exist in this organization as they do in all others. And that's our first responsibility and our primary responsibility.

Second responsibility, of course, is in view of our role in the world of work. The world of work which is out there. It is to my mind somewhat surprising that at the international level, psychological issues, mental health issues, stress issues, have not received the degree of attention that other health and safety risks have. If you look at our body of international labour standards, if you look at the activities that we undertake, if you look at the expert meetings that we have, it seems to me there is quite a serious imbalance in the way that we have addressed the whole panoply of welfare issues at work. And, as I say, the whole direction of change in the world of work should incite us to move more and more in the right direction.

So colleagues, I'm encouraged both by the fact that you're all here and that this World Mental Health Day is being dedicated to these issues. I'm also encouraged that greater policy attention is being given to these issues today, more than in the past - at least as far as I can remember. And I think that gives us reason for some optimism, but more than that, it should reinforce us in our determination to take up these issues in ways that are more adequate than in the past.

We know all of the issues of stigma. We know all of the issues of the hesitations to talk publicly about one's own experiences. You know, these are silences that need to be broken. We have a responsibility to play our role in that regard. And I'm very hopeful that today's event and of course the messages that we're going to receive from our distinguished panellists will help us along the right road. I think we have a lot to learn as well from others. And so I look forward very much to listening to my fellow panellists.

Thank you.