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The Elephant in the Room: Mental Health in the Workplace

Recently, a lot of attention has been paid to workforce health and wellness. More and more employers are creating initiatives aimed at improving employees’ health (think of smoking cessation programs, fitness promotion programs, and anti-obesity programs as examples). But one aspect of “wellness” is too often left out. Good mental health is fundamental to everyone’s overall health and wellness. But employees’ mental health illnesses or problems have simply not been arising on most organizations’ radar screens. And that’s a shame, because unaddressed mental health problems in today’s workplaces have large impacts on both the affected employees and their employers as well.

We’re talking here about only the most common mental health problems: depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. How common they? Surveys show that nearly 20% of all employees in U.S. report that they have experienced a problem with at least one of these in just the past month. Look around your office. If there are 50 staff members, then around 10 of them have likely experienced a mental health problem last month. That’s staggering.

Recent research is finally shining a light on mental health in the workplace, yielding some alarming – but very useful and actionable – information about the nature and extent of the problem, and the impacts of unrecognized and untreated mental health problems on employees and their employers.

The 2016 Mental Health at Work Report (from the UK-based Business in the Community research organization) presented the findings from surveys of 20,000 employees representing a wide variety of sectors and industries. The report found that:

  • 77% of employees said they had experienced some form of poor mental health • Only 11% of employees discussed a recent mental health problem with their line manager • Only 22% of managers have received any training on dealing with employee mental health, but nearly half said they would appreciate such training

The stigma around mental health is huge, creating and perpetuating the “culture of silence”

Powerful stigma still exists around all mental health issues. As a society, despite the increasing rates of mental health suffering, we continue to avoid addressing or even discussing the issue. This results in a “culture of silence” that surrounds mental health. The silence envelopes the workplace, ensuring that problems remain unaddressed. So employees don’t disclose any known mental health conditions, for fear of not getting the job. Employees don’t seek treatment for the symptoms of depression and anxiety they are experiencing. (One study found that only 57% of employees with symptoms of major depression said they had received any treatment at all in the previous 12 months). And employers don’t ask employees about conditions they observe that might be mental health-related for fear of making a mistake or risking a legal problem.

Increasingly, work-related stress is creating and driving mental health problems.

We know that stress is the foundation of many mental health problems. The role played by chronic stress in fostering the development of mental health problems has been established for some time. Research has linked stress to hypertension, coronary artery disease, sleep disturbances, as well as depression and anxiety.

Research by the American Psychiatric Association found that 69% of employees say that their work is a significant source of stress, and 41% said they feel stressed out during the workday. Another poll found that that work is the most stressful thing in people’s lives, above money, marriage or relationship issues. Deadline pressures, heavy workloads and the demands of an always-on 24/7 culture are part of many employees’ working lives. But when people become stretched too thin, the resulting exhaustion and unrelenting stress can build into significant mental health problems. And the lack of communication, the perpetuation of the culture of silence that surrounds mental health causes continuing damage. The 2016 survey found that fewer than half of employees felt they could approach their manager about a mental health problem.

The impacts of failing to address mental health problems on employers and employees alike are huge

Maintaining the silence, and leaving mental health issues unaddressed has huge repercussions on the workplace and everybody in it. It isn’t just the untreated employee who continues to suffer needlessly, risking long-term damage to his or her career and life well-being. The loss of productivity to the employer is significant. Because of the stigma, employees suffering from depression and/or anxiety tend to continue to report for work, but their job performance suffers. The problem of “presenteeism” – employees coming to work when they are ill cost U.S. employers more than $150 billion every year. Recent studies have concluded that the indirect costs of mental health disorders — particularly lost productivity — actually exceed companies’ spending on direct costs, such as health insurance contributions and pharmacy expenses.

What companies can do

  • Learn. Understand the nature and scope of the problem. Some great data, and references to research papers can be found in this infographic: 19 Frightening Workplace Mental Health Statistics. Learn about the symptoms of common mental health problems, so they can be recognized.
  • Communicate. The 2016 Mental Health at Work report found that mental health came in last out of nine social issue topics employees said they felt able to talk about. Behind such taboo subjects as sexual orientation, disability and religion. Break the culture of silence that surrounds mental health. Raise the subject and talk about it openly among employees. Make employees who are facing mental health challenges feel understood, valued, and supported.
  • Train. Invest in basic mental health literacy for all employees and training in mental health to managers’ capability to recognize symptoms of mental health problems.
  • Take action. Develop workplace programs that focus on mental health issues. Business in the Community has published a free downloadable Mental Health Toolkit for Employers. It can help employers take positive action to provide a better understanding of how to help those who need more support, and to create an organizational culture that values good mental health.

Maintaining mental wellbeing in the workforce is an essential prerequisite to growing a healthy and sustainable business. In the long term, whatever costs are spent on mental health care represent an investment that will pay off — not only in healthier, happier, more productive employees, but also for the organization’s capacity to thrive and succeed.