1 in 5 (46.6 million) adults in the United States experience a mental health condition in a given year. (www.nami.org) That means, in an organization that employs 100 people, 20 are likely challenged with a mental health condition.
Managers and leaders know that people must be physically healthy to perform well, but sometimes forget how critical mental health is to success on the job.
May is National Mental Health Awareness Month, so now is the perfect time to explore how we, as employers, can reduce the negative impact of mental health conditions on people and workplaces.
About Mental Health Disorders
The CDC describes mental health disorders as medical conditions that disrupt a person’s thinking, emotions, mood, ability to relate to others, and daily functioning. These conditions often result in a reduced ability to cope with the routine daily activities such as working or managing a household.
People with mental health disorders face negative stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination. Mental health issues are not a sign of personal weakness and do not exclusively affect individuals of a certain socioeconomic status, age, race, or gender.
Just like chronic diseases, mental health disorders can stem from risk factors outside of an individual’s control such as family history, traumatic experiences, and childhood abuse or neglect.
“Most people diagnosed with a serious mental health disorder can receive relief from their symptoms by following a treatment plan specifically designed for them by a trained psychologist or psychiatrist.” (Mental Health and Chronic Diseases Issue Brief No. 2 October 2012 Center for Disease Control, page 1).
Notable for employers is that 71% of workers with mental illness have never sought help from a medical or mental health specialist for their symptoms. This has a significant impact on the workplace.
Depression alone is estimated to cause 200 million lost workdays each year at a cost to employers of $17 to $44 billion. (Mental Health and Chronic Diseases Issue Brief No. 2 October 2012 Center for Disease Control, page 2).
In addition to issues of absenteeism, presenteeism – the problem of workers being on the job, but not fully functioning or being fully productive because of a mental or physical health condition – can cut individual productivity by one-third or more. (Harvard Business Review, Presenteeism: At Work – But out of It, Paul Hemp, October 2004 issue).
It’s clear that employers have a significant stake in helping people with mental health conditions, but what can they do to help?
Take a Holistic View of People
The starting point to providing a supportive environment and dealing effectively with mental health issues is adopting the perspective that we are not one person at work and another in our personal life but instead, one entirely whole person.
We can compartmentalize our lives but when it comes to mental health, we carry that with us everywhere, just like the pain in our bodies. We can’t leave emotional pain at the door when we walk into work.
What we struggle with physically, mentally, and emotionally affects our attention to and performance on our jobs. Therefore, mental health is just as important for all of us to give time and attention to as is physical health.
We are all adults, who must take responsibility for managing our physical and mental health issues. At the same time, a supportive environment and community of people make the journey to health easier.
How Employers Can Support
There are many ways that employers can support the mental health of all employees as well as provide support to those with specific mental health conditions. Here are five that top my list:
1. State your philosophy. Communicate regularly that mental health will be treated the same as physical health. Of course, this is meaningless without policies and programs that are aligned with that philosophy, but it all starts with articulating the organization’s intention.
2. Provide resources. Resources could include things such as Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) that provide free counseling to employers, a list of mental health resources including a crisis support line, and/or a workplace health and wellness education program. For individuals who are struggling and uncertain, these resources could be lifesaving.
3. Give time off from work. If your organization can afford it, provide a competitive level of paid time off (PTO). Allow employees to use their time off for rest when physically or mentally exhausted, not just when they have diagnosed illnesses and medical appointments. Publish a leave of absence policy that employees dealing with a difficult bout of a chronic mental health issue can take advantage of.
4. Train managers to be approachable and empathetic. Train managers and supervisors about mental health issues and employer resources. An open channel to discuss issues with a supervisor can ensure issues are taken care of and that people are able to receive support before problems escalate.
5. Make work standards clear, and address issues early. Part of supporting people is setting expectations and holding them accountable for their work. Expect employees to perform when they are at work, regardless of whether they have a mental health condition or not; doing anything less will have a negative effect on team morale. Articulating standards may give someone who is struggling the incentive to reach out for professional help.
6. Consider all requests for accommodations. A mental health care provider may recommend work accommodations to ease symptoms and decrease the negative impacts of mental health conditions. Often minor, free, or inexpensive changes in the workplace can make a dramatic impact on an individual’s work performance.
Every situation is unique. Seek out the advice of a human resource professional, trained mental health professional, and/or employment attorney when considering how to handle accommodation or performance issues related to people with mental health conditions.
Supporting people on their journey to get and stay healthy is not only humane but also contributes to the success of the business. Treat people well, and they’ll treat you, your customers, and your other employees well.
What other steps do you think employers can take to support employees with mental health conditions? You can leave your answer in a comment below.
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