The pandemic changed our world of work, and impacted our (mental) health – it is now time for a holistic approach
Post Pandemic Mental Health
The COVID-19 pandemic had significant implications for the health and wellbeing of European workers. Most were required to adapt to working from home, while many essential workers who continued to operate outside their homes risked exposure to the virus. Fear, isolation, loss of (financial) stability and loss of loved ones, dramatically raised levels of stress, anxiety and depression across Europe.
Research shows that those who already faced mental health difficulties prior to the pandemic have been hit the hardest. The situation has also deepened existing heath inequalities. Barriers to many people seeking support or speaking out arise from fear of stigma, the misconceptions of others and/or even their own lack of awareness, while the limited availability of support and its expense make tackling these barriers difficult.
While the physical consequences of the virus have been in the limelight, the ongoing consequences of the pandemic for mental health (dubbed the ‘silent’ or ‘second’ pandemic) is a less discussed problem. But as physical and mental health go hand in hand, they both need to be addressed on an equal footing.
To effectively respond to the mental health ramifications, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has stressed the importance of integrated cross-sectoral policies across governments.
But what steps are being taken on either side of the Channel?
The EU’s Mental Health Strategy
While EU policymakers recognised the seriousness of the situation, the majority of interventions in the health space are being left to Member States, who maintain competence over public health. The European Commission facilitates exchanges on which best practices and approaches can be scaled up across the EU countries through a Steering Group on Health Promotion, Disease Prevention and Management of Non-Communicable Diseases and the EU Health Policy Platform, and dedicated funding of projects addressing mental health.
The Communication on the EU strategic framework on health and safety at work for 2021-2027 has indicated that before the end of 2022 that the Commission will prepare, an initiative related to mental health at work. However, there are no clear signs yet that any EU-wide legislation will appear any time soon.
The European Parliament’s cross-party Coalition for Mental Health and Wellbeing is an important driver in raising awareness of the growing mental health crisis (pointing out that the total economic impact of mental illness in the EU is at least €600 billion per year – or more than 4% of GDP), and several Members of the European Parliament are calling for an EU mental health strategy.
The Employment and Social Affairs (EMPL) committee yesterday adopted an own-initiative report calling for an EU mental health strategy, a European Care Strategy and a European Year of Good Mental Health in 2023. The European Parliament will likely cement this as a formal opinion from the institution during a plenary session on 4th July.
However, it remains to be seen whether this will be enough to prompt the European Commission to propose more harmonised rules, particularly as mental health has not really been at the forefront of the Council of the EU’s priorities for the period of 1 January 2022 to 30 June 2023.
At the national level, some Member States are rethinking their approaches. In some countries, debates revolve around ideas such as the introduction of a four-day workweek without loss of salary, which should provide flexibility and increase productivity. Encouraged by trade unions across Europe, some policymakers and businesses are implementing or experimenting with the new arrangement, particularly in Belgium and Spain.
UK Government Mental Health 10 Year Plan
Similar approaches are being investigated in the UK. Last week, a trial of the 4 day week was launched in the UK to test its effectiveness. More than 3300 workers at 70 British companies, big and small, participate in this pilot, which will run for six months.
As for specific Government ambitions, the UK Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) recently launched a discussion paper and call for evidence to seek stakeholders’ views on what it can do to improve all citizens’ mental health and wellbeing. The consultation closes on Thursday 7th July, and is intended according to Gillian Keegan MP, Minister for Care and Mental Health, to inform a “new 10-year mental health plan which will focus on ensuring the nation is in positive mental wellbeing”. A refreshed national suicide prevention plan is also planned. This follows the work done under the aegis of the “COVID-19 mental health and wellbeing recovery action plan” of March 2021 and builds on the NHS Long Term Plan.
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the UK Government has made available many resources to tackle the estimated annual loss of £74-99 billion due to poor mental health. These include a dedicated webpage, and a toolkit for small businesses. Initiatives like Thriving at Work have also driven improvements to workplace wellbeing.
Back in 2018, Whitehouse outlined why the Government should be more ambitious about tackling mental health. Since then, partly due to the pressures of the pandemic, UK policymakers are increasingly acknowledging the urgency of tackling these issues. In many ways, they have advanced more rapidly than the EU which finds it difficult to build the required cross-country consensus to move forward in a more harmonised way.
The Whitehouse team has considerable experience in health, human rights and equality, and education, supporting organisations, both large and small in having their voice heard in the United Kingdom, the European Union, its Member States and beyond. For more information, please contact our Chair, Chris Whitehouse, at firstname.lastname@example.org.