Why Employers Need to Talk About Mental Health in the Workplace
Why Employers Need to Talk About Mental Health in the Workplace
Nearly one in five U.S. adults struggles with mental illness, including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, PTSD, OCD, and more. These disorders are a fact of life for over 45 million Americans, but our conversations, work processes, and treatment of them at work often makes little allowance for it. Instead, employees often hide or attempt to work around their mental illness, fearing suspension, firing, or loss of access to job development and promotion opportunities. This is fair, in light of data published by the World Health Organization, which shows that mental illnesses cost the world economy over $1 trillion in productivity and persons with any mental illness take 3.1 sick days for every 1 taken by a neurotypical person. People are motivated to hide and ignore mental illnesses, resulting in increased stress, burnouts, and decreased productivity.
As a result, mental illnesses contribute to dramatic decreases in quality of life and quality of work for many people. Rather than finding inclusion, acceptance, and support for diverse needs, people avoid discussing mental health, and everyone suffers. Fostering discussion around mental health in the workplace is critical to helping employees to create healthy and productive spaces for themselves, to seek treatment for mental disorders, and to practice personal development to improve personal mental health and productivity in the workplace.
Creating a Culture of Inclusion
Mental illnesses including depression, anxiety, PTSD, and OCD severely limit an individual’s ability to work in a traditional way. Persons with mental illness are more likely to struggle with:
Lack of focus
Interpersonal communication skills
Health and safety management
Becoming distressed at work
Reacting with stress or overreacting to an otherwise innocuous situation
Difficulty in meeting deadlines
Difficulty in maintaining social contact
Maintaining a “normal” sleep schedule
Openly discussing mental health in your organization means that employees will come out about mental disorders. People who are open about the problems they are facing are easier to treat. For example, HR can easily work around the needs of a person with mental illness by:
Offering a flex-work schedule, so long as they make their hours and deadlines, it doesn’t matter when they are submitted during a period/sprint
Fostering peer inclusion by educating teammates and colleagues
Delivering personal management training to help the individual better manage their own mental health in the workplace
Reduce symptoms of mental illness by reducing isolation-related stress and anxiety
Assess risk-factors for the individual and work to reduce them across the team or the organization
Actively develop positive aspects of work and employee strengths to build value in work for the individual(s)
There are many steps that employees can take to actively reduce the impact of mental illness in the workplace, but most of them start with open and honest discussions.
Mental illnesses are costly to organizations and to employees. SAMHSA estimates that the cost of ignoring mental illness in the workplace runs $80-$100 billion annually in the United States alone. Mental illnesses impact job performance and productivity, engagement, communication with colleagues, and physical capability to function in a role. Actively taking steps to improve mental health in the workplace reduces these costs, while actively improving the workforce as a whole and reducing the chances that mental illnesses will worsen or that other employees will develop mental illnesses.
Some forms of recommended direct assistance include:
Delivering mental health self-assessment tools to employees
Incorporating regular mental health screenings into health benefits offered by the organization (typically covered by insurance)
Ensure that health insurance covers mental illness treatment, including medication and psychotherapy
Incorporate lifestyle coaching and self-management programs into the workplace
Ensure employees regularly discuss mental illnesses, symptoms of poor mental health, and are aware of avenues and rights for treatment
Actively create and maintain a relaxing and stress-free environment
Support employees in seeking out mental health treatment, with either full insurance coverage, employer subsidized programs, or direct placement assistance into healthcare opportunities.
While “talking” about issues isn’t effective for many problems, research shows that even making employees aware that support is available and widely recognized will dramatically improve uptake of mental health programs and of employees seeking assistance. Here, one of the largest barriers is often the stigma surrounding mental illnesses, leading many to avoid treatment unless they believe it is accepted by everyone.
A supportive environment is one in which an individual with mental health problems feels recognized, accepted, and supported. Often, this means developing workforce awareness of mental illnesses, fostering acceptance and understanding, and building support tools by teaching individuals to recognize and reach out to individuals showing signs of poor mental health.
This is especially important for managers and supervisors, who often make key decisions relating to supporting flexible working schedules, organizing buy-in for team support, and granting time off for treatment or arranging treatment.
A supportive environment gives every individual room to:
Talk about their feelings
Ask for help
Contribute to fulfilling work
Offer help and support to others
Listen to others
Learn to manage feelings and moods in interpersonal relationships
While some of building a supportive environment can result from simple discourse, many employers eventually benefit from delivering coaching, workshops, and other tools to employees. Using open discussion to foster buy-in, followed by formal learning and assessments may be the best option.
While no employer is obliged to ensure that an employee seeks out mental health treatment, it is in everyone’s best interest if you make treatment accessible, affordable, and visible across the organization. Doing so may include partnering with a mental health organization, ensuring that strong mental health treatment policies are in place across the organization, and choosing employee insurance packages with care to ensure full support of mental health.
Evidence-based mental health treatment including medication and psychotherapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy or dialectical behavioral therapy is proven to offer increases in quality of life, productivity, and interpersonal management. People who learn how to manage their emotions, their relationships, and their behaviors are better at what they do, and more able to manage their mental health in and out of the workplace. They’re also more likely to be able to offer assistance to colleagues, to actively listen, and to offer the kind of support that makes people feel accepted, welcome, and able to thrive.
Mental health problems affect most of us. In fact, the average U.S. adult will develop a mental illness during their lifetime. While, for most of us, mental illnesses are not chronic, they still greatly impact our lives, our productivity, and our health. Stress, lack of acceptance, and lack of connections and communication in the workplace are often contributors, meaning many employers can greatly reduce health problems in their organizations by fostering environments of inclusion, discussion, and treatment.