Sep 20, 2023 - Health

Unions press feds for more workplace mental health protections

Illustration of many yellow sticky notes with a pink one in the center with a brain on it

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Two of the country's biggest unions have joined a coalition calling on federal regulators to protect workers' mental health the way they enforce standards for physical health and safety.

Why it matters: The press comes amid widespread post-pandemic burnout, growing awareness of the country's worsening mental health and some of the strongest pro-union sentiment in decades.

Driving the news: A letter sent Wednesday to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration from David Michaels, who led the agency under President Obama, argues that "the agency's grant of authority from Congress includes the power to protect workers' mental health from workplace hazards."

  • Co-signers of the letter, which was provided exclusively to Axios, include the National Education Association and the Service Employees International Union. The left-leaning Governing for Impact and the Economic Policy Institute are also among the signers.
  • The groups call for the agency to initially issue guidance and take enforcement actions, but to also "take steps towards using its regulatory authority ... to set an enforceable workplace safety and health standard."

What they're saying: "OSHA's lack of focus on psychosocial risks is really an obvious hole in the worker safety protection system," Michaels told Axios.

  • "The law says that employers must provide a work environment free of serious hazards," he added. "Every worker has the right to go home at the end of the day in the same condition that they arrived. That's the fundamental reason why OSHA should get involved."

OSHA has taken steps like providing a checklist for managers in response to the rise in the number of people experiencing anxiety and depression. It's also joined in suicide prevention efforts.

  • The groups acknowledge efforts like these but want the agency to go further.

Between the lines: It's not surprising that the unions calling for more workplace protections represent teachers and health care workers —professions that have struggled immensely with burnout and workforce shortages post-COVID, although the health care labor shortage is easing.

  • Although students' needs have become more complex after the pandemic, "I don't think that before the pandemic or after the pandemic that there's been enough mental health support for educators," said Shannon McCann, an NEA executive committee member. "This is all also coinciding with an increased societal recognition that mental health is health."
  • McCann said that the educator shortage is "very closely connected" to mental health concerns.
  • "Workers of all stripes — but especially essential, frontline workers in nursing homes, hospitals and home care — often face emotionally and psychologically challenging situations at work that can carry into their lives," said Janelle Jones, SEIU's national policy director and chief economist.

What we're watching: The letter comes following the summer of strikes and as the United Auto Workers union holds a historic strike against General Motors, Ford and Stellantis.

  • "Labor unions are enjoying a moment of high public approval and strong belief in the benefits they offer to workers, businesses and the economy," a recent Gallup analysis concludes.
  • Translation: It's a good time for unions to make demands.
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