“Mental health at work has remained in the shadows for too long,” Belgium’s Deputy Prime Minister urges EU to dedicate the next 10 years to mental health

For the first time in a decade, the Belgian Presidency of the Council of the European Union has placed mental health and wellbeing at the forefront of the EU agenda. In a conversation with Frank Vandenbroucke, Belgium’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Social Affairs and Public Health, we delved into the visionary initiatives of the Belgian EU Presidency, how Belgium is championing the mental health of European workers and underscoring the crucial need for continued mental health awareness, not only now but for years to come.

With the EU elections having taken place earlier this month, now is the time to set the agenda and shape narratives that will drive meaningful change, reflecting on the past while propelling towards future ideals. Yet, amidst the political buzz in Brussels, where does mental health and wellbeing fit in?

Once pushed to the back of the room when it came to political agendas, mental health has, in recent years, captured the attention of both society and governments, with a positive mental health movement gaining momentum across Europe. Unsurprisingly, recent crises such as the pandemic and the rising cost-of-living have reshaped society and, consequently, reshaped how policymakers approach mental health.

"None of Europe's citizens have been spared by the successive crises we were recently confronted with. The foundations to help reverse the trend are there, national legislation across Europe can be seen as good practices, and there are many initiatives in the public and private sectors that can provide inspiration,” says Vandenbroucke.

2023 proved to be a big year for mental health. In June of last year, the European Commission launched its first-ever vision for an EU-wide comprehensive approach to mental health, acknowledging that mental health is an integral part of a person’s overall health. Soon followed the European Parliament voting in favour of a report calling for more direct funding to tackle the rising mental health problems in Europe, marking a significant political signal for mental health awareness.

Putting mental health firmly back on the table

When Belgium took over the EU Council Presidency in January 2024, one of its bold and ambitious missions was to firmly place mental health back on the political agenda, particularly when it came to the wellbeing of workers.

"Mental health at work has remained in the shadows for too long. Across Europe, absenteeism is on the rise, emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence are having a profound impact on the world of work, and the boundaries between work and non-work time are becoming blurred,” explains Vandenbroucke.

The Belgian Presidency's crucial call? To recognise the importance of mental health in fostering supportive working environments. “Start to work, access to employment for individuals with mental health conditions is a pressing concern in our rapidly evolving societies," says Vandenbroucke.

Extensive research has revealed the detrimental effects COVID-19 has and continues to have on people’s mental health and wellbeing. Since the onset of the pandemic, rates of anxiety and depression have surged by 25%. Particularly vulnerable to these challenges is Europe’s health and social workforce, grappling with burnout and moral distress as they tirelessly work to meet the demands on their services. The World Health Organization (WHO) has already sent a clear warning that change is needed. Describing the current state of Europe's health workforce as a 'ticking time bomb', the organisation warns that without immediate action, the gaps in the health and care workforce could spell disaster for the European region.

Yet, there is hope on the horizon. Four years on since the pandemic began, governments are now reconsidering how they can better safeguard the mental health and wellbeing of Europeans in the face of such seismic challenges.

"Considering the negative correlation between long absences and return to work, early detection, referral, and care of workers facing symptoms of mental distress are of tremendous importance to prevent the aggravation of symptoms that may potentially lead to more serious conditions or comorbidities. To do so, organisational, and individual factors that may have led to the development of mental health problems need to be considered to act accordingly,” Vandenbroucke emphasises.

Mental health at work has remained in the shadows for too long. Across Europe, absenteeism is on the rise, emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence are having a profound impact on the world of work, and the boundaries between work and non-work time are becoming blurred.

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Breaking barriers: supporting back-to-work

In today's rapidly changing world, with its ongoing challenges, ensuring access to employment for people with mental health problems is paramount. Everyone, regardless of employment status (worker, employee, employer, etc.), deserves access to preventive mental health services. Tailoring these services, such as monitoring, screening, and support, is essential to meeting each person's specific needs.

"Addressing mental health can no longer be done in isolation; it must be integrated into broader policy frameworks," says Vandenbroucke. "The facilitation of access to the labour market is part of the goals set out by the European Pillar of Social Rights, as well as social protection and inclusion in general.”

Guiding Europe's workplace wellness

Belgium's approach to promoting mental health at work offers valuable insights for the rest of Europe. Initiatives such as the pilot project on burnout by the federal agency, FEDRIS, aimed at workers in the health sector, provides a two-year counselling trajectory with tailored measures for the individual and work environment, and has shown positive outcomes at improving both mental and physical wellbeing. This has led to an extension of the programme across all sectors.

"The majority of individuals with mental health problems would like to have a paid job. However, a proportion of them are unemployed. Aiding individuals with mental health problems in a supported return to work is imperative," says Vandenbroucke.

Belgium's adoption of the Individual Placement and Support (IPS) employment approach, alongside mainstream ‘Return to Work’ policies, aims to provide intensive support for sustainable and inclusive employment. This evidence-based approach, recognised internationally for its effectiveness, accompanies people with moderate to severe mental health problems with looking for work as early as possible and continues to offer them personalised support after they have found a job.

In December 2023, Belgium also completed its initiative ‘Sandboxes.’ This collaborative project working with professionals in healthcare aimed to understand how to enhance the appeal and comfort of working in healthcare settings.

"Several concepts and concrete ideas were tested and refined within operational environments in Belgian hospitals. The collaboration with healthcare professionals and the trials in their working environments were necessary for what we wanted to achieve: we wanted to start with what already exists,” explains Vandenbroucke.

Will there be an EU directive on psychosocial risks at work?

The recognition of psychosocial risks in the workplace has also gained traction within international legal frameworks. Instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ILO conventions on safety and health at work, violence, and harassment at work, and the European Social Charter underscore the importance of addressing these risks. At the EU level, the European Pillar of Social Rights (EPSR) signified a  shift in representing the primary reference point for EU-level action on wellbeing in the workplace.

Nevertheless, disparities in regulations across Member States highlights the need for cohesive action to ensure consistent protection for Europe’s workers. The next European Commission will have to decide whether to submit a legislative proposal, most likely in the form of a directive, on psychosocial risks at work.

"This directive should include at least the following elements: the scope, a coherent definition of psychosocial risks, and the role of all actors in the enterprise involved in the elaboration and application of the wellbeing policy with particular attention to information and training. It must also establish a set of minimum prevention measures, taking into account the characteristics of the job, work organisation, interpersonal relations at work, working conditions, and the physical working environment. The employer must also pay attention to the interaction between the various risk factors that determine psychosocial risks," says Vandenbroucke.

We do have some catching up to do at the European level, so maybe we should make all ten of the next ten years a European year dedicated to raising awareness about mental health

Setting a blueprint for Europe's future wellbeing

Belgium's focus on mental health sets a positive example, emphasising the importance of prioritising wellbeing in the workplace. Integrating mental health considerations into employment policy reflects growing efforts towards mental health in all policies, paving the way for a healthier and more supportive future for all Europeans.

Looking ahead, there is a growing call for a dedicated European Year for mental health. Such an initiative could bring numerous benefits, including reduced stigma, enhanced education, and policy development. By aligning with broader efforts, such as a dedicated EU strategy on mental health, it could catalyse comprehensive action to address mental health challenges across Europe.

"Overall, a European Year dedicated to mental health would be a significant step towards addressing the complex challenges associated with mental health and could play a crucial role in promoting a healthier and more supportive Europe," Vandenbroucke says.

"We do have some catching up to do at the European level, so maybe we should make all ten of the next ten years a European year dedicated to raising awareness about mental health."

 

Strategies for a healthier workplace

EuroHealthNet's policy brief presents a collection of public health strategies aimed at fostering a healthier workplace environment while safeguarding and enhancing the health and mental wellbeing of older workers. Discover EuroHealthNet's EPSR Flashcard Tool - breaking down each principle into bitesized chunks.

Ruth Thomas

Ruth joined the EuroHealthNet team in April 2022 as Communications Officer.

She holds a BA Hons degree in Print Journalism from the University of Gloucestershire (UK) and has worked in the not-for-profit sector for over ten years. Ruth has applied her communication skills to a number of positions including for an energy trade association in Brussels and as part of a National Research Network (Sêr Cymru / Stars Wales), where she was based at a UK university.

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