Making Mental Health a Priority in the Workplace
Prevention & Treatment The American work setting has a long way to go toward actively supporting individual mental health needs and lowering costs associated with untreated mental illness.
Long before we traded memes, the American work week was defined by familiar clichés: Mondays were dreaded until we could clear the Wednesday hump and thank God for Fridays. But for many, the challenge of navigating the work week is complicated by mental health issues that are usually ignored or misunderstood. As a result, if you are in a meeting with more than five people, chances are that at least one is suffering from depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder or attention deficit disorder.
Facing mental health challenges at work can impact overall health, relationships and even lifespan. Those in unhealthy work environments tend to gain more weight, spend more time at doctor visits and miss more days at the office. Stress from work can also increase risks for chronic illnesses and heart attacks.
Obstacles in the office
Depression and anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 10 percent of American adults admit to depression, with a similar number for anxiety disorders; but the number is surely higher when considering those who misunderstand their symptoms. Depression and anxiety tend to affect people in their prime working years and may last a lifetime if left untreated.
Although most people associate depression with general malaise or sadness, in the workplace, employees may become passive, withdrawn, forgetful and unproductive — behaviors that are more likely to result in disciplinary action than a medical referral. The same is true for those suffering from anxiety. In both cases, the symptoms displayed at work are not the same as those that would be observed at home, making diagnosis difficult.
Although symptoms may be ignored, the economic consequences are real, resulting in missed days and reduced productivity. When researchers rank the most costly health conditions, depression ranks first, and anxiety ranks fifth. When indirect costs, especially lost productivity, are considered, the economic impact is even greater.
“Depression and anxiety tend to affect people in their prime working years and may last a lifetime if left untreated.”
Mental Health America estimates that worker absenteeism from depression costs the U.S. economy $51 billion annually in lost productivity and $26 billion in direct treatment costs. Annually, depressed employees miss an average of almost 20 days, and operate at reduced productivity for 45 days. The most sobering statistic: almost 15 percent of those with severe depression will die by suicide.
Despite the pervasive nature of the problem, the vast majority of mental health disorders are untreated. Most people with a mental illness experience symptoms early, as teens or young adults, but may delay treatment for years because they do not believe their conditions are treatable.
There are other obstacles to addressing mental health challenges in the workplace. First, mental health disorders are difficult to identify. Stress and anxiety, two frequent triggers of disorders, are an accepted part of most jobs. Second, even when people do seek help, managers and HR departments are ill-equipped to respond, either lacking the information or the resources to help. Third, care-providers struggle with finding effective treatments that don’t jeopardize the career of their patients. And finally, perhaps the most difficult factor to accept, the stigma attached to admitting a mental disorder, especially in difficult economic climates, is enough to discourage most sufferers from seeking help.
A mentally healthy office
Low treatment rates can imperil both the employee’s career and the company’s productivity. Adequate treatment, on the other hand, can alleviate symptoms for the employee and improve job performance.
For most people, treatment works. More than 80 percent of employees treated for mental illness report improved levels of work efficacy and satisfaction. And treatment is cost-effective. When employees receive effective treatment for mental illnesses, the result is lower total medical costs, increased productivity, lower absenteeism and decreased disability costs.
Mental health issues are pervasive but treatable, yet the vast majority of those affected fail to receive the help they need. Certainly, education is needed, for both individuals and companies, so that early symptoms can be correctly identified. Individuals can do more to achieve a healthier work-life balance, and companies can do more to recognize behaviors associated with mental illness and respond with cost-effective and compassionate programs. But at the core of our failure to address the mental health needs is the stigma associated with mental illness.
Respecting and treating mental illness on par with other medical illnesses is the first step in the process. Those with mental health illnesses are not the first to suffer needlessly because of the ignorance and fear of others. As we have come to understand the biological nature of issues formerly seen as behavioral problems, it is time to see the mental health patient with the same understanding. Properly diagnosed and properly treated, those who suffer from mental illness are no more to be feared or ostracized than those who suffer from any other medical challenge.
Out of office
There have been steps in the right direction. The Mental Health Parity Act of 1996 provided that large group health plans cannot impose annual or lifetime dollar limits on mental health benefits that are less favorable than any such limits imposed on medical and surgical benefits. The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 added new protections, such as extending the parity requirements to substance use disorders. However, while the law requires parity, it does not require that those benefits are offered as part of a company’s health plan. As a result, the impact of the law has been less than desirable.
Still, the change in law does prove that conversations are taking place, and the ability to discuss the issues and challenges of mental health in the workplace are a crucial step in reducing the stigma. Conversations will lead to greater knowledge and understanding, which will in turn lead to a more compassionate and understanding treatment for those who suffer needlessly.
But accomplishing these aims requires a shift in attitudes about the nature of mental disorders and the recognition that such a worthwhile achievement takes effort and time. It is time to think of mental health care as an investment, and one that results not just in healthier employees and healthier companies, but also in a healthier society. It makes good business sense and it’s the right thing to do.