Beyond awareness: Supporting mental health among employees

Mental health, by the numbers:

  • Approximately 1 in 5 U.S. adults experiences mental illness in a given year, but only 41% of those will receive treatment¹
  • Depression alone causes an estimated 200 million lost workdays each year, costing U.S. employers as much as $44 billion²
  • Depression and anxiety disorders alone are costing the global economy an estimated $1 trillion each year in lost productivity³

That’s trillion. With a capital T. A trillion dollars in lost productivity, each year. Still wondering if mental health is really more than just a trending Twitter topic? Still doubting whether employee mental health has an impact on your organization? Trust the data. We can’t turn the other cheek on one in five of our employees. We can’t shrug off a trillion. Worldwide, mental illness is a leading cause of absenteeism. And the risks associated with not addressing employees’ mental health could lead to tangible economic consequences for organizations across the globe.

The unseen risks

Organizations recognize the need to mitigate risks that leave their employees vulnerable physically. They spend millions each year on workplace safety training and education for injury prevention. Employers may offer on-site fitness classes or discounts to local gyms to encourage physical health (and potentially see lower insurance premiums). Employee cafeterias are offering healthier options than vending-machine candy bars, and the rise of activity-tracking devices has spawned intraoffice “step challenges” to get employees up from their desks more often.

But when it comes to employees’ mental health, the risks aren’t as visible. Which means employers may not see the immediate need for — or payoff of — preventive measures, even though the risks of leaving them on the back burner often lead to similar outcomes. An employee who’s clinically depressed may have trouble getting out of bed in the morning, contributing to tardiness or absences. Someone who struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may experience panic attacks, leading to a decrease in workplace productivity. But mental illnesses aren’t the only thing we should be worried about in regards to mental health. A recent Gallup survey reports 55% of Americans regularly experience stress. And while stress doesn’t always start at work, conflicts with coworkers and tight deadlines can certainly be contributing factors.

Connecting the dots

Regardless of whether or not the workplace environment is to blame for an employee’s stress or poor mental health, it’s an employer’s responsibility to be an active member in their journey to well-being. While physical and mental health conditions may have different symptoms, there’s a clear and direct correlation between them. Each influences a person’s overall well-being, but because many organizations are unsure how to appropriately respond to the mental health concerns of employees, many of their needs are often left unmet.

Recognize and acknowledge

An employee struggling with a mental health condition may not outwardly say, “I need help.” In fact, only one in four people with anxiety will share their struggles with their employer — which means these numbers, staggering as they are, probably under-represent the real picture.

By acknowledging an employee’s mental well-being, a manager is saying, “I hear you.”

But as an employer, you can take a proactive approach by equipping management with the knowledge they need to identify the symptoms of mental illness and feel confident in their ability to handle a situation with compassion. By acknowledging an employee’s mental well-being, a manager is saying, “I hear you.” And many mental health professionals explain that’s what is often needed most for employees to cope and for organizations to flourish: understanding and acceptance. Are your managers prepared to handle a situation where an employee expresses concerns regarding their own mental health? Do they know where to go or who to reach out to for support? Does your organization offer an employee assistance program (EAP) that provides counseling for employees?

Accommodate and include

Accommodations vary based on the type of mental health condition that needs addressed. Some employees may benefit from an EAP that offers mental health services, like in-person therapy. Others may find relief in flexible or alternative work schedules. Take a look at the demographics of your organization. How might millennials and Gen Zers respond to resources like telemedicine and health apps?

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that more than 20% of adults over the age of 60 suffer from a mental or neurological disorder. What does mental health care look like for your Gen X and boomer employees, a demographic whose health conditions may lead to feelings of loneliness or depression? How might social events and opportunities to volunteer in the community help reduce feelings of isolation and increase employee engagement?

Well-being looks different in every organization. An annual, anonymous survey can help pinpoint the unique needs within your organization in regards to mental health. What challenges do your employees say they’re facing? What resources would they find most helpful? How can you be an active member in their journey to well-being?

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), an employee must share a mental health condition with his/her employer in order to receive accommodations. Once disclosed, medical information can’t be shared with others in the workplace — and the choice to disclose a mental illness is legally protected — but in many cases, employees don’t share their background with employers for fear of stigma or repercussions. While an employer can’t legally require an employee to disclose medical information, they can set the tone for inclusiveness in the workplace, making it easier for employees to ask for the accommodations they need.

The idea of work-life balance has been around forever. These days, the buzz is all about work-life “integration” and creating a holistic employee experience. But transformation can’t happen without innovation. Truly inclusive organizations create a culture of well-being and are willing to take a proactive approach to mental health and care. It’s not about trying to eliminate the symptoms employees face; rather, it’s about equipping them, and you, with the tools and resources needed to get them back to health, reduce absenteeism and improve productivity.


1. https://www.nami.org/learn-more/mental-health-by-the-numbers
2. https://www.cdc.gov/workplacehealthpromotion/health-strategies/depression/evaluation-measures/index.html
3. https://www.who.int/mental_health/in_the_workplace/en/

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