A new mentality for occupational health and safety
Twenty years ago, when Malta’s occupational health and safety watchdog was established, public perception was that this entity would be dealing with occupational hazards associated with the manufacturing industry, manual jobs, and construction. While there has been notable progress in this regard with a significant statistical drop in the injury rate, occupational health should not be limited to safety helmets and preventive apparel to safeguard employees from physical harm. If this were the case the OHSA would have little or no relevance at all to the rest of the workforce whose duties are performed from an office, if not remotely from the comfort of their own home.
What about the mental health of employees? How are we tackling work-related stress in terms of productivity levels and job satisfaction but also to safeguard situations which could lead to workplace safety being compromised? It is also an issue of work-life balance as the line between private life and the workplace is increasing becoming blurred.
According to the World Health Organization decent work is good for mental health. On the other hand, poor working environments including discrimination and inequality, excessive workloads, low job control and job insecurity pose a risk to mental health. In 2019 an estimated 15% of working-age adults suffered from mental disorder. Globally, an estimated 12 billion working days are lost every year to depression and anxiety at a cost of US$ 1 trillion per year in lost productivity. There are effective actions to prevent mental health risks at work, protect and promote mental health at work, and support workers with mental health conditions.
It is often presumed that a worker’s mental illness develops outside of the workplace. However, an ‘unhealthy’ work environment or a workplace incident can cause considerable stress and exacerbate or contribute to the development of mental illness. Research indicates that ‘job stress and other work-related psychosocial hazards are emerging as the leading contributors to the burden of occupational disease and injury.’ The cost of ignoring the problem is far greater than the cost of developing and implementing strategies to create a safe and healthy workplace.
Throughout the years UHM Voice of the Workers has worked closely and supported various initiatives to strengthen workplace health and safety in terms of legislation and measures to beef up enforcement. However, it is now high time to place more emphasis on the employees’ mental wellbeing. The shocks from the Covid-19 pandemic – which resulted in a spike of mental health issues as result of overnight changes in long-established work practices – were an eyeopener. OHSA should set the ball rolling to strengthen occupational mental health whether in the form of educational campaigns, legislative reforms, or new support services. UHM pledges its full support for any such initiative in line with our approach which focuses more on prevention rather than intervention.