Message of the WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, on World Mental Health Day, 10 October 2017

Every year on 10 October, the world commemorates World Mental Health Day, to draw attention to the importance of mental health. This year is the 25th anniversary, with the theme of “Mental health in the workplace”.

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. Globally, an estimated 10% 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% 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.

Mental health has a critical impact on economic development and wellbeing. Productivity losses from absenteeism associated with mental health problems are substantial and appear to be increasing. 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. Treating anxiety, depression and other mental health disorders is an affordable, cost effective way to promote wellbeing and prosperity. Up to 80% of those treated improve, usually within four to six weeks. Depression is preventable and treatable if diagnosed early.

Many employers are developing policies to support a healthy workforce, but there is no shared vision. 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% of their waking hours at work, mental health at work is at the heart of daily social interactions.

The causes and consequences of work-related stress are best handled through a combination of both collective and individual measures, with a focus on prevention. Mental health friendly workplaces have programmes and practices that promote employee wellness and/or work-life balance; treat mental health illnesses with the same urgency as physical illnesses, and provide training for managers in mental health workplace issues.

Employers can become change agents by modifying risk factors for stress in the workplace, creating an organizational climate that promotes wellbeing and creativity, and facilitating care for those who need it. Employees can take steps to learn the signs and symptoms of a mental health problem and engage in prevention, including talking about it.

Mental health is one of WHO’s priorities. We encourage countries to promote mental health in the workplace, and build broad coalitions to promote best practice, decrease negative attitudes and empower individuals to promote good mental health for all. Dignity in mental health requires every member of society to work together. It requires action in the community and, importantly, in the workplace. Workplace wellbeing is key to ensuring a healthy, sustainable workforce which is essential for a healthier, more productive and prosperous African Region.