2021: International Year of Health and Care Workers

Copyright: Dolyan Basko/Koverznev A.

01 January - 31 December 2021

WHO has designated 2021 the International Year of Health and Care Workers (YHCW) in recognition of their dedication to providing care during and despite the COVID-19 pandemic that has challenged health systems worldwide.

Health and care workers include all those engaged in health services, public health and related areas, as well as those providing support to these activities. This varied category of workers encompasses health professionals such as doctors, nurses, midwives, pharmacists and physiotherapists, but also allied health professionals such as mental health workers, social care workers, occupational health workers, radiographers, laboratory workers and others.

During the 73rd World Health Assembly, Member States spoke to the critical role of health and care workers in ensuring individuals’ and communities’ health and well-being. Member States emphasized that the COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated why all health and care workers are critical to health emergency responses and for health system preparedness and resilience.

Investing in health and care workers – their education, well-being and fair remuneration

Health employment acts as a boost to the economy and a multiplier of economic growth, which means that investing in the health and care workforce benefits the whole of society.

The health and social sector is a major employer of women and represents an important investment area for gender equality. One in 10 workers in member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development is engaged in the health sector, and three quarters of these workers are women.

The High-level Commission on Health Employment and Economic Growth has also estimated that investments in health employment can result in a 9-fold return on investment and up to 4% growth in gross domestic product (GDP).

The YHCW is an opportunity to draw attention to the need for greater investments in health and care workforce readiness, education and learning to manage the pandemic and its consequences and to roll out the COVID-19 vaccine.

Beyond COVID-19, investments are also needed in health and care workers’ ability to deliver primary health care, manage noncommunicable diseases, and provide mental health services, maternal and child health care, long-term care and palliative care.

Investments in education, continuing professional development, well-being and occupational safety in all of these areas are important preconditions for retaining and attracting health and care professionals. Without making health and care work a desirable and supported career path, countries will struggle to attract newcomers, including in rural areas, or to progress towards universal health coverage and stronger, more resilient health systems.

Health and care workers deserve concrete action

Beyond offering praise and applause, the YHCW aims to energize countries to collaboratively tackle persistent health and care worker challenges.

The health and well-being of the health and care workforce have always been important, but are now even more vital. As societies grapple with the consequences of prolonged stress and pressure on health and care workers, it is important that Member States take concrete steps to address their needs.

Throughout the year, WHO/Europe will work in collaboration with partners to show appreciation to the workforce dedicated to the health and care of others, and to advocate for concerted efforts to:

  • improve their working conditions
  • invest in their education
  • expand their roles
  • protect their health and well-being.

WHO also calls attention to the increasing scale of international health worker migration, especially from lower-income countries with fragile health systems, and the need for strengthened implementation of the WHO Global Code of Practice on the International Recruitment of Health Personnel.

Health and care workers are essential contributors to the advancement of the European Programme of Work’s core priorities. Their responsibilities in working towards universal health coverage, protecting more people against health emergencies, and promoting health and well-being for all at all ages must be acknowledged not only with praise, but also with tangible measures.