4 Min Read

Here’s Why We Need to Talk More About Mental Health at Work

Brad Brenner, Ph.D.

In some of today’s modern workplaces, employees enjoy ping-pong tables, beer bars, chef-prepared meals, yoga classes, and napping hammocks. They’re getting personalized financial planning, flexible schedules, paid sabbaticals, and even pet insurance. More employers seem to be striving to create a comfortable and healthy workplace to keep their most valuable resource — their human capital — dedicated and productive. Still, less than one-third of employees are happy at work. So what are today’s employers missing?

Perhaps employees aren’t happy because despite having a playful work environment and plenty of perks, they still don’t feel free to be themselves. They may form friendly relationships with coworkers or share funny stories about their kids with a supervisor. Yet, when it comes to personal issues, they hesitate to disclose anything they perceive might impact their job security. One of these taboo topics is mental illness.

encourage employees to seek mental health treatment

The struggle is real

Globally, more than 264 million people suffer from depression, the most prevalent type of mental health condition. Depression, anxiety disorder, and other mental disorders interfere with home life, social activities, and work for more than 80% of sufferers. Yet rather than admit to a supervisor or HR professional that they suffer from workplace stress, have a diagnosed mental health problem, or request a reasonable accommodation to achieve real work-life balance, they suffer internally.

In fact, in a recent workplace survey by Mental Health America, 69% of participants agreed that it was safer to stay silent about their workplace stress. In the same poll, an overwhelming 80% were afraid to ask for time off to attend to their mental health. Instead, workers disguise requests for paid time off during the workday to deal with mental health challenges as a time to tend to physical illnesses, which seems to be a much more socially acceptable excuse.

What employers don’t know is hurting them, though. Globally, companies lose more than $1 trillion each year due to depression and other mental health issues. In the United States, depression contributes to up to 400 million lost workdays annually, and severe mental illness costs America up to $193.2 billion in lost earnings from absenteeism and decreased job performance.

Dispelling the stigma

To achieve real change, employers must first admit their workplace cultures include a stigma that keeps workers from disclosing mental illness or revealing mental health problems. Then, they must put programs in place to show employees they care as much about each person’s mental health as they do their physical health. Just as employers provide first aid for on-the-job injuries or make accommodations for individuals with a physical disability, they must learn to address mental health conditions equally. Lastly, they have to stand behind that commitment by encouraging and helping employees to deal with and perhaps even overcome mental health conditions without fear of any repercussions at work.

For many companies, these efforts are part of an overall employee assistance program (EAP), and they’re usually managed by the human resources department or by consultants as an employee benefit. EAPs started as solutions to address drug abuse and harmful use of alcohol among employees. Today, they’ve matured to include physical wellness, employee engagement, and perhaps most importantly, mental illness.

Employee assistance programs typically include purposeful efforts to give employees access to counseling from mental health professionals. The company’s insurance plan may even cover the cost of this counseling. Best of all, everything about an employee’s mental health counseling — from the fact they made an appointment to any diagnosis — is usually confidential. An employer’s human resources department will receive only cumulative totals, such as the number of employees with mental health concerns who have taken advantage of the benefit.

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Cumulative benefits

The World Health Organization estimates for every dollar employers “put into scaled-up treatment for common mental disorders,” there is a return of four dollars in improved health and productivity. However, contributions to the bottom line shouldn’t be the only reason employers should work to dispel myths about mental health stigma and institute EAP plans. They’ll also benefit from a preventive standpoint.

It should come as no surprise that dealing with workplace stress day after day leads to negativity, absenteeism, and, eventually, burnout. Burnout, according to Mayo Clinic, is a “special kind” of workplace stress that may stem from several work-related factors like conflicts with coworkers, work-life imbalance, or job insecurity, but usually results in both physical and mental health problems for the employee.

Building a healthy workplace that recognizes and addresses the triggers that may lead to burnout and mental health issues entail more than providing arcade games and unlimited soft drinks in the workspace. It requires a company culture that talks openly about mental illness and allows employees to communicate and report the things that disturb them. Mental Health America’s survey found that 61% of respondents “disagreed that supervisors regularly checked in on their workplace needs.” In a healthy workplace, employees aren’t afraid to share their thoughts, and bosses aren’t afraid to ask.

Erasing stereotypes

Mental health concerns aren’t just top of mind for a handful of employees. A 2018 survey found that making workplace accommodations for good mental health is essential to all generations of workers:

  • 72% of employees want employers to champion mental health and wellbeing.
  • Nearly three-quarters of workers say they want their employers to champion good mental health and wellbeing in the workplace. Mental wellbeing is rated as more important than equality (48%), sustainability (38%), and diversity (31%).
  • This is the case for all generations, who prioritize mental health and wellbeing above all other causes – Gen Z (76%), Millennials (73%), Gen X (75%), Baby Boomer (56%).

Mental disorders are treatable. Appropriate treatment by a mental health professional can help employees develop methods to cope with workplace stress, identify triggers that may lead to anxiety or deepen depression. They can assist employees in finding an appropriate therapist by recommending tools like blog.withtherapy.com, which helps individuals narrow down a vast list of therapy options using preferences like location, gender, race, experience, and more. Employers that understand the power of therapy for mental illness will inevitably reap the benefits of promoting a mentally healthy workplace.

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