Following are UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ remarks at the launch of the United Nations System Workplace Mental Health and Well-Being Strategy: “A Healthy Workforce for a Better World”, in New York today:
We are here to launch a very important undertaking to ensure the well-being of our staff — our Organization’s greatest asset. You are all aware that our work is becoming more challenging and more stressful. Many staff in the field are facing increasingly dangerous operating environments.
Even at seemingly placid headquarters locations, work atmospheres can be hostile and problematic, including as a result of sexual harassment or abuses of power. Given these realities, mental health takes on paramount importance. Promoting the mental health and well-being of the workforce of the United Nations is a fundamental aspect of management’s duty of care to staff.
It is also crucial for carrying out our work for the world’s people. It is also fully in keeping with the Sustainable Development Goals, which call on us to “ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages”. Yet, as we know, mental health is a neglected area of global health.
Some countries have only a handful of mental health professionals. Even in the wealthiest nations, mental health services are often marginalized and underresourced. I believe I can fully testify, having been married for 25 years to a psychoanalyst, and being the brother of a psychiatrist. I know how deeply they always felt that health services were never a real priority in most of the countries in the world.
And everywhere, individuals with a mental health diagnosis are frequently stigmatized, stereotyped and shunned. Our own workplace is not immune from such failings. Staff struggling with anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder or other circumstances have reported feeling isolated and ashamed, with no one to turn to for help.
Our own internal surveys suggest that this is an organizational challenge of considerable magnitude. Mental health diagnoses account for almost a quarter of all days lost to sick leave and are the leading cause of disability pensions. The United Nations can and must do better in supporting staff — and it starts with the new Strategy we are setting in motion today.
The United Nations System Workplace Mental Health and Well-Being Strategy is a comprehensive road map for improving the way we care for our staff. Reducing stigma is priority number one. Until we overcome stigma, staff will not be prepared to seek help or disclose how they are feeling. This means that everyone in a position of authority must model the highest standards of behaviour, language and attitudes about mental health. We will never reduce stigma without leadership from the top.
The Strategy also underscores the need to care for each other and to reach out to colleagues who may be in distress, and find ways to help them feel supported, not judged. We also need to educate ourselves about the early warning signs of mental illness.
Healthier attitudes towards mental health will also have a positive impact on our interactions with the people we serve, many of whom suffer from the mental health consequences of armed conflict, terrorism, natural disasters, forced displacement and sexual exploitation and abuse. Indeed, empathy, understanding and solidarity should be hallmarks of our work across the world.
I thank the High-level Committee on Management for the extensive work that has been done to advance this strategy, within the work on Duty of Care. These efforts, and those of the mental health working group, are sensitizing all of us to the importance of mental well-being and moving our Organization towards the forefront of best-practice psychosocial occupational health.
I am here to emphasize my full commitment, and that of the entire senior leadership, to this Strategy. I look forward to working with all of you towards its full implementation. Let us all be part of a healthier workforce as we work for a better world for all. Thank you very much.