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Workplace stress: time to lift the burden

It's all too much: stress in the workplace harms productivity

Published to coincide with World Day for Safety and Health at Work, which was on April 28, this commentary by Guy Ryder, the director-general of the International Labour Organisation, focuses on the toll taken on the health and wellbeing of workers worldwide by stress in their working environment.

Target 8 of Goal 8 of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development calls for “safe and secure working environments for all workers” — securing safe workplaces extends beyond the protection of workers’ physical safety to their mental and psychological wellbeing.

Work-related stress affects workers in all professions in developed and developing countries alike. It can gravely harm not only workers’ health but also, and all too often, the wellbeing of their families.

Globalisation and technological change have transformed work and employment patterns in ways that sometimes contribute to work-related stress. High unemployment levels, particularly in the absence of adequate social protection measures, can also have undesirable consequences for the mental health of workers.

Enterprises are not spared and they face the consequences of work-related stress on their overall performance with increased absenteeism, presenteeism [working while sick] and staff turnover, and difficult labour relations.

More data and analysis is needed to fully quantify the financial costs of workplace stress but it is already abundantly clear that the burden is considerable. A recent study cited in the ILO report, Workplace stress: a collective challenge, indicates that more than 40 million people are affected by work-related stress within the European Union alone and that the estimated cost of work-related depression is €617 billion ($710 billion) a year.

While much still needs to be done to reduce stress at work, we can say that in recent years there have been welcome developments in understanding the issue. Awareness has increased and in most countries policymakers, social partners and professional networks are becoming more involved in the design of legislation, policy, strategies and tools for the assessment and management of work-related stress.

It is clear that the protection of workers’ mental health must focus on preventive strategies. Assessing and managing psychosocial risks at their origin will help craft the collective and individual measures needed to improve the quality of working life for women and men.

The ILO is committed to work with governments, workers and employers and their organisations around the globe to design and implement effective national, regional and enterprise level policies to prevent and minimise work-related stress.