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Maximizing mental health

Gone are the days when employers could pretend that employees’ personal problems didn’t matter. Now more than ever, companies recognize the benefits of investing in their workers’ mental health.


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From the pages of In Business magazine.

Years ago, an employee needing a break from the rigors of the workplace — let alone everyday life — might have called in sick.

More recently, workers have opted toward taking “mental health days” to avoid burnout. The phrase may sometimes be used tongue-in-cheek, but the reality is we face numerous stressors in our lives that oftentimes can’t just be checked at the door when we leave for work.

Increasingly, employers also recognize that ignoring an employee’s personal problems is ineffective when trying to promote a healthy, productive workforce. The personal affects the professional, and vice versa, so ensuring workers have the necessary resources available to improve their situation — be it in the form of employee assistance programs (EAPs), counseling services, or even just an impromptu shoulder to lean on — is essential these days.

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) conducted a survey in 2009 exploring the link between mental and physical health among Badger State adults, and noted the impacts of mental health on the workplace.

As detailed by HR Playbook, an online resource for Wisconsin human resources professionals, among the key findings in the DHS report were results indicating that Wisconsin adults suffering from serious psychological distress or depression were at least twice as likely to be smokers and were less physically active than those without such mental health issues. Wisconsin adults with serious psychological distress were three to five times more likely to have chronic diseases like asthma and cardiovascular problems, suggesting that behavioral health issues can affect an employer’s health care costs.

When it comes to workplace performance, notes HR Playbook, the DHS study found Wisconsin adults with serious psychological distress or depression were three to six times more likely to have “functional limitations.” That includes being unable to work productively or to show up to work at all. Respondents with serious psychological distress averaged nine days a month that their condition interfered with activities such as their jobs. Compare that to less than one day a month on average for those without serious psychological distress.

Another study conducted by the American Psychological Association estimates that depression alone costs U.S. employers $210 billion in 2010, representing a 21.5% increase from 2005. The study found the average worker with major depression lost the equivalent of 32 workdays a year in productivity due to a phenomenon known as presenteeism, which occurs when an employee is at work but fails to complete responsibilities.

Additionally, people with mental health issues such as depression may be more likely to struggle with substance abuse, which is another behavioral health-related issue, according to HR Playbook. That includes the ongoing opioid abuse epidemic, a major concern for Wisconsin businesses and families alike.

Deep dive into depression and other mental health disorders

Mental health concerns impact both the employee and employer, notes Kayla Smith, communications and development coordinator for NAMI Dane County, the founding chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to improving the lives of people affected by mental illness.

Smith says the four most common mental health concerns in the workplace for employees are:

1. Depression

a. Depression in the workplace presents itself in both emotional and physical forms. For example, low mood is one of the defining emotional symptoms of depression but there are other characteristics that are common. These include nervousness, restlessness, irritability, aches and pains, being more passive, withdrawn or unproductive, and fatigued (partly mood disorder or lack of sleep due to insomnia).

b. One study reports that about 6% of employees experience symptoms of depression in any given year, notes Smith.

c. A World Health Organization (WHO) questionnaire found that workers with depression reported the equivalent of 27 lost days per year — nine due to sick days or other time taken out of work, and 18 reflected in lost productivity.

2. Bipolar disorder

a. In a manic phase, employees with a bipolar disorder may appear highly energetic and creative, but their actual productivity may suffer.

b. During the depressive phase, an employee may exhibit depressive symptoms as outlined above. Although mania may be more noticeable at work, research suggests that the depressive phase of bipolar disorder can impair performance more than the manic phase, explains Smith.

c. According to the WHO questionnaire, it’s estimated that employees with bipolar disorder lost the equivalent of about 28 workdays per year from sick time and other absences, and another 35 in lost productivity.

3. Anxiety disorders

a. Typically manifest in the workplace as restlessness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and excess worrying. Employees might also require constant reassurance about performance.

b. Loss of productivity/sick days is similar to that of depression.

4. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

a. Symptoms of ADHD typically manifest as disorganization, failure to meet deadlines, inability to manage workloads, problems following instructions from supervisors, and arguments with co-workers.

b. The WHO questionnaire found loss of productivity from ADHD to be about 22 days a year.

c. A not so fun fact: People with ADHD are 18 times more likely to be disciplined for behavior or other work problems, and they are likely to earn 20% to 40% less money than others. They are also two to four times as likely as other employees to be terminated from a job, notes Smith.

The most common ways employers are affected is the sizeable economic consequences of not addressing mental health in the workplace, says Smith. “It’s pretty unanimous that the indirect costs of mental health disorders — particularly lost productivity — actually exceed most companies’ spending on direct costs, such as health insurance contributions and pharmacy expenses.”

Smith says the most costly health condition for workplaces, including direct and indirect costs, is depression. Anxiety ranks fifth while obesity, arthritis, and back and neck pain take up the second through fourth spots.

“Considering the number of sick days and lost productivity attributable to mental illness in the workplace, employers that are able to recognize the most common mental health problems and create a pathway for affected employees to receive needed treatment are making a winning investment,” states Smith, “one that pays off in improved health of employees, and in improved productivity and cost savings for employers.”


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