Strategies for improving mental health at the workplace

By: Dr. Teresa Bartlett, Sr. Medical Officer, Sedgwick

The first step toward improving mental health issues in the workplace is to raise awareness of these conditions and identify ways to assist those needing treatment. Sometimes, employers are surprised to learn the scale and scope of mental illness among adults today.

It is estimated that 1 in 5 Americans experience mental illness. Further, the Centers for Disease Control approximate that 1 in 25 adults in the U.S or an estimated 11.2 million experience a serious mental illness in any given year that substantially interferes with or limits one or more life activities. Young people are particularly susceptible to these conditions. Reportedly, 50% of all chronic mental illness begins by age 14 and 75% by age 24.

While conditions will vary, four common mental health disorders and the estimated number of adults living with these include:

  • 2.4 million American adults live with schizophrenia
  • 6.1 million American adults live with bipolar disorder
  • 16 million American adults live with major depression
  • 42 million American adults live with anxiety disorders

The impact that these and other mental health conditions have on the workplace in terms of lost productivity and performance is sizeable. It is estimated that serious mental illness costs America $193.2 billion in lost earnings every year. Furthermore, stress, anxiety and depression are among the top factors driving absenteeism at the workplace. On a broader scale, depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide and is a major contributor to the global burden of disease.

Given the scale and scope of mental health disorders and the impact they can have on productivity, many ask why so many cases go untreated. One of the primary reasons is due to the stigma and social prejudice associated with mental health conditions. Many individuals feel they would be labeled or harassed at work if their condition was known. Others believe that their relationship with their supervisor could be impaired and future advancement opportunities limited. Additionally, they may feel a sense of shame or embarrassment. In some circumstances, they are made to feel that the problem is not real but rather “all inside their head.” In other instances, the lack of insurance or cost of medication or treatment prevents individuals from seeking assistance. It has been documented in some geographic areas, the number of qualified providers is limited, and treatment is not readily available.

Because mental health has not historically received a lot of attention or been widely discussed, many individuals simply do not understand the treatment options available to them. Certainly, counseling and therapy with behavioral health specialists, psychiatrists or other qualified providers can be beneficial. Medication may or may not be prescribed. Integrated health approaches that incorporate positive lifestyle changes and address both physical and mental well-being can be effective.

Additionally, the advancement of technology has increased access to treatment and assistance.  As telehealth has become more widely accepted for treatment of certain physical ailments and illnesses, it is also gaining acceptance as a viable tool used in treating mental health conditions. In appropriate circumstances, it can be a convenient alternative and provide access in areas where providers may otherwise be limited. Similarly, online support groups are increasing in popularity.  In addition, interactive apps are being used by individuals seeking assistance, as well as those who want to proactively protect and improve their current mental health and overall well-being.

As awareness and understanding of mental health conditions grow, employers are seeking ways to actively help those who need assistance. Employers can and should advocate and put in guidelines to stamp out stigma and any social prejudice toward mental health conditions at the workplace. This starts with support at the executive level and becomes a part of the organizational fabric. Additionally, front line managers and supervisors need education on how to recognize signs of mental health distress and appropriate actions to take to offer assistance.  Sharing and promoting employee assistance programs, their availability and resources can also be helpful.

Today, more employers are recognizing the value of overall health and well-being. Mental health is certainly an important part of that equation and one that requires more focus and attention.