Mental Health in the Workplace: One Size Does Not Fit All
Mental health disorders are among the costliest health concerns for employers in the United States. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly one in five adults live with a mental illness. Depression and anxiety are among the most common mental health disorders but often go undiagnosed and untreated.1
Many factors may contribute to mental health issues, including traumatic or abusive life experiences, biology, and family history of mental health problems. Unfortunately, social stigma and fear of discrimination prevent many people from seeking help.
Employee mental health impacts the bottom line
Poor mental health and stress can negatively affect employee job performance, productivity and relationships. In addition, as physical health is inextricably linked to mental health, many people with mental health disorders are at high risk for chronic physical conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and respiratory illnesses.2
The reverse is also true; physical illness, such as cardiovascular disease, may cause or worsen mental health issues, particularly symptoms of depression.3 Healthcare costs to treat people with both mental and physical disorders can easily be two to three times higher than for people without co-occurring illnesses.4
Employers have a unique opportunity to improve employee mental health
Investing in mental health treatment in general has proven to be cost-effective. Employers can reduce health care costs for their businesses and their employees by addressing mental health issues in the workplace. Many evidence-based treatments can save $2 to $4 for every dollar invested in prevention and early intervention.5 An effective approach is not one-size-fits-all but takes into consideration generational differences and employee diversity.
A recent study published in the Harvard Business Review called “People want their employers to talk about mental health” indicated that millennials (the cohort of people born between 1981 to 1996) were three times more likely to experience anxiety than baby boomers.6 Gen Zers (those born between 1997 to 2012) report even higher rates of anxiety and depression. Millennials and Gen Z employees are the largest demographic in the workforce, and those who took part in the survey indicated an expectation that mental health be addressed in the workplace openly and without stigma.
Develop a customized approach to promoting mental health resources
The Harvard Business Review study recommends a multi-faceted approach that includes a more accepting culture starting from the top, with training and support, as well as clear information about employee resources such as availability of mental health benefits, wellness programs and employee assistance programs.
Employers should be cognizant of where their different employee groups seek information and use those channels (whether it’s the intranet, staff meetings, one-on-one meetings, employee resource groups, digital signs and posters, instant messaging platforms, or other social media venues) to provide needed information. Virtual mental health counseling and the availability of mental health apps offer convenient and mobile-friendly emotional support, particularly for younger employee groups accustomed to using their smart phones for everything from texting to shopping.
Dislodging stigma and experimenting with different communications channels to meet the needs of a diverse workforce can be challenging for human resources departments and managers. But the end result will be worth the effort: a healthier work environment that supports healthier employees and enhanced productivity.
1 “Facts & Statistics.” Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA, https://adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics.
2 “Chronic Illness & Mental Health.” National Institute of Mental Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/chronic-illness-mental-health/index.shtml.
3 “Chronic Illness & Mental Health.” National Institute of Mental Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/chronic-illness-mental-health/index.shtml.4 https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/fullarticle/2748662?
5 Lerner D, Lyson M, Sandberg E, & Rogers W.H. (2018). The High Cost of Mental Disorders- Facts for
Employers. Retrieved from https://onemindinitiative.org/at-work/the-business-case/
6 Greenwood, Kelly, Bapa, Vivek, Maughan, Mike (2019). Research: People want their employers to talk about mental health. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2019/10/research-people-want-their-employers-to-talk-about-mental-health