The business case for employers to invest in mental health

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Lately, more and more of my friends are coming to me to talk about their depression and anxiety. And their depression and anxiety are mainly related to work issues.

One of my close friends, Tina, feels stressed every Sunday because she dreads going to work on Mondays.

I’m sure some of us can relate to that feeling of anxiety on every Sunday evening.

Obviously, not all mental illnesses are related to the workplace. But stress related to work issues is a major contributor to depression and anxiety.

Leading cause of stress survey by the American Psychological (https://ceoroundtable.heart.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Mental-Health-Full-Report-March-25-2019.pdf)
Leading cause of stress survey results by the American Psychological Association

According to a national poll of U.S. employees conducted by Harris Poll, 76% of U.S. employees have struggled with a mental health issue. About 42% responded “yes” when asked if they have ever been diagnosed with a mental health disorder.

These mental health issues can be risk factors for serious physical health issues, like heart disease, diabete, and stroke.

Unfortunately, many people don’t address these risk factors. Sixty three percent of those diagnosed with a mental disorder say they have not disclosed it to their employer. Furthermore, only 40 percent of those who report having severe depression receive any treatment.

Mental health is a serious issue affecting many people. While we freely discuss physical health, very few discuss mental health. In fact, three in five employees say they’ve never spoken to anyone at work about their mental health status, even though it’s just as important to our overall well-being.

Workplaces that promote and support mental health are more likely to reduce absenteeism, lower total medical costs, and increase productivity.

Let’s look into why businesses should pay attention to employees’ mental health, and how to better support overall employee wellness.

How does mental health affect people in the workplace?

We know that physical health makes an impact on employee focus and productivity. That’s why many businesses offer benefits and perks like health insurance and gym memberships. Healthy employees are better able to bring their best selves to work.

Mental health is just as important—if not more important— than physical health. Employees who are stressed out about things in their personal or professional lives can find it difficult to focus on work and perform at a high level.

Those with chronic, untreated mental health problems often struggle even more. They may find it difficult to go about their lives, have suicidal thoughts, and everything from sleeping, eating, and going to work can be affected. As a result, companies may see lower engagement levels and higher absenteeism, leading to lower overall performance and productivity.

The World Health Organization estimates that depression and anxiety cost the global economy $1 trillion per year in lost productivity.

But they also report that every dollar put into treatment for common mental disorders equates to a four-dollar return in improved health and productivity. And 80 percent of workers who have received treatment for mental illness report that their workplace satisfaction and productivity have increased.

Many companies are now focusing on overall employee wellness to ensure employees’ mental and physical health needs are being met.

How the workplace contributes to mental health issues

Eighty four percent of employees have experienced physical, psychological, or behavioral symptoms of poor mental health where work was a contributing factor. Four out of five workers say job stress affects their relationships. Three out of five say that frustration at work has led them to engage in unhealthy behaviors such as drinking and crying regularly.

Those are alarming statistics!

People spend most of their waking hours at work, so it makes sense that much of their stress, anxiety, and depression are actually caused by their jobs. Work-related sources of mental health problems include:

  • Long hours: Long hours at work mean less time to relax, unwind, and spend time with friends and family.
  • Unrealistic workloads: Unattainable work goals can make people feel overwhelmed, cause burn out, and cause people to fear for their job security.
  • Job insecurity: Job insecurity increases the odds of reporting poor health by about 50 percent. People who are constantly worried about the status of their jobs—and their ability to take care of themselves and their families—are going to be stressed and anxious.
  • Toxic company culture: A company culture that allows things like intolerance, unreasonable expectations, micromanagement, bullying, and harassment (sexual and psychological) can cause significant mental stress on employees.
  • Poor workplace design: Your workplace design—including things like the density of the workspace, poor lighting, poor air quality, noise, lack of privacy, etc. — can negatively impact an employee’s mental and physical health.

Ways your company can support mental wellness

It’s no secret that when your employees are healthy and happy, they can unleash their human potential and are more likely to be creative and productive at work. By promoting and supporting your employee’s well-being at work, your employees are able to bring their best selves to work.

Here are ways you can support mental wellness at your company:

1. Provide training to employees as well as to managers

The first important step to combat mental illness is to provide the necessary education and training to employees and managers.

Harmful myths about mental illnesses like mental illness is a sign of weakness, a result of chemical imbalance, an improper diet, etc. prevent people from seeking treatment. Moreover, this lack of education and training continues to perpetuate the culture of silence around mental health at work.

Managers should be trained on how to recognize signs of depression in employees and refer employees to available mental health resources.

Additionally, since the managers have a significant influence on the employees’ work life, it’s important to provide managers with the necessary people management training. Managers that are competent, trusting, and supportive are more likely to foster a positive working relationship with their employees.

2. Build a safe and inclusive company culture

Create a safe space at your company, where employees feel they can bring their whole selves to work and openly discuss their mental health issues with their managers without fear of discrimination or stigma.

Ninety one percent agreed that we need to adopt a more tolerant attitude to people with mental health problems. Unfortunately, 61 percent of respondents to a recent Unum/DMEC (Disability Management Employer Coalition) feel there’s a social stigma in the workplace toward colleagues with mental health issues.

If senior executives openly declare support for mental health, employees would feel more comfortable talking about their mental health issues and seek the necessary help. Barclays encourages team members to share their mental health stories as part of their “This is Me” campaign, designed to break the culture of silence.

3. Optimize employee workloads

Over 70 percent of workers believe they have unrealistic workload expectations. While output and productivity are important, employees should be treated as human beings and not as robots.

Set realistic workloads and goals to help employees reach sustainable productivity. Communicate those goals with employees early, and report on progress regularly, so employees know what’s expected of them and where they stand.

4. Encourage employees to take vacations

In our current productivity-obsessed culture, many Americans feel guilty about using vacation benefits.

But studies have shown there are benefits to taking time off to unwind and relax. Leaders and managers should encourage employees to take their paid time off (PTO) and make sure that there is no guilt associated with requesting time off.

5. Create a healthy workplace

A comfortable, well-thought-out work environment can boost employee happiness by 33 percent!

Allow employees to make their own workspaces, create different spaces for different purposes, bring nature into the office, and get the lighting, temperature, and air quality right. Your workplace should also reflect your company culture so the two tie in together.

6. Allow flexible work arrangements

The World Health Organization lists “inflexible working hours” as one of the workplace practices that can be detrimental for mental health.

Flexible work arrangements can reduce stressful commutes and give people more productive time back in their days, contributing to a better work-life balance. Netflix has eliminated the traditional 9-5 workday and implemented unlimited paid time off to allow employees to take mental breaks as needed, and take time off to recharge.

7. Offer mental health programs and mental health leaves

Choose a health insurance plan that covers mental health care with low out of pocket doctor visits and prescription costs.

A supplemental Employee Assistance Program can offer additional resources, such as screenings, onsite counseling services, online programs, tele-therapy, and referrals. It’s important for managers to promote and discuss these programs with their employees. You may also consider offering employees mental health leaves, wherein those undergoing therapy can take paid time off.

Additionally, here are some useful resources you can direct your employees to:

8. Offer wellness programs

Wellness programs offer numerous health benefits, including improved physical fitness and stress reduction. Your wellness programs may include gym/yoga membership, mental health workshops, company-wide mindfulness and meditation workshops, or meditation app subscriptions to improve overall employee wellness.

Final thoughts on Mental Health

By now, you’d agree that mental health is a serious issue that needs to be addressed. It’s critical to educate employees about mental health resources and offer support to help reduce mental breakdowns and suicide risk.

Employee mental health needs can vary, so try to offer a variety of services for your employees. It can be helpful to conduct regular surveys to learn more about your employee’s wellness needs, and how well your current programs are addressing them.

Small and medium-sized companies can implement many small changes that make a significant impact over time. All of these things come together to improve employee happiness, reduce stress levels, and help with overall employee wellness. Of course, more serious mental health problems may require professional help—so don’t overlook that aspect whenever possible.

Your employees spend more of their waking hours at work than anywhere else. Do your best to ensure your workplace isn’t contributing to mental health issues, and offer resources to help employees who need them!

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