By Krystal Bouverot, Director of Innovation for Labor Solutions
with contribution from Sharmin Begum, an RMG Social Compliance Specialist in Dhaka, Bangladesh
April marked five years since Rana Plaza factory collapsed in Bangladesh, killing more than 1,130 workers and injuring another 2,500. There are still many indications of workers of being unwell, according to counsellors working with Rana Plaza survivors and families of victims. Many have not been able to work in enclosed factory spaces due to fear that the walls would come crumbling down. Also, there is a fear among workers that they will not being able to report issues. Others have reported their incapability to withstand loud noises, which are characteristic of factory jobs or the cityscape. Many also suffer from anxiety, short-term memory loss, anger issues and sleep disorders.
Overall, workers have shown an exceptionally high risk of developing mental health problems after the incident. Global labor organization IndustriALL said nine out of ten Rana Plaza survivors are too psychologically unwell to work. A recent survey by ActionAid Bangladesh, an international non-profit, revealed that nearly 48% percent of survivors of the Rana Plaza incident are out of employment due to physical and mental weakness. Moreover, data from multiple sources has confirmed mental and emotional health problems not only in the vast majority of affected workers, but also among their family members and rescuers.
Therapy and emotional health support are luxuries that few victims can afford; most have received as treatment a regular supply of sleeping pills for chronic insomnia prescribed by their local clinic. A few organizations (e.g., the National Institute for Mental Health) provided free, but limited, mental health services in the immediate aftermath of the Rana Plaza incident. This was laudable, but not enough. Proper care requires support sustained over months by dedicated mental healthcare professionals, and outreach to workers who returned to distant villages. To date, that work remains largely undone. There are no international agreements for this level of support, and non-profit funds dedicated to the cause are insufficient to reach most people.
The issue of workers enduring mental and emotional strain is not unique to Bangladesh – factory workers globally are under tremendous stress. This issue should not be left to governments and non-profit organizations alone to address. Companies should protect and support the emotional wellbeing of their people not only because they are the company’s life-force, but also because it makes for better business.
A survey by Towers Watson  shows that 57% of employees who claim they are experiencing high stress levels also say they are disengaged, compared with 10% of those who claim low levels of stress. Highly stressed employees, according to the survey, also took about 75% more sick time than low stress workers, and presenteeism was also 50% higher among highly stressed employees. More time away, and more time at work while unwell and/or unproductive obviously leads to lower productivity for highly stressed employees, so it makes sense for a company to mitigate stress when it can.
Proper emotional health support services can help reduce stress, and thus get workers back to work faster after an incident, enhance their productivity, and provide them with the confidence they need to report dangers they see.
This is where worker tech can offer scalable solutions, both for prevention and remedy. Wherever workers have access to phones they have access to tools to share their ‘voice’ and to receive health and wellness support.