What Employers Need to Know About Mental Health in the Workplace

September 1, 2020

Depression and anxiety may not seem like things that an employer should concern themselves with, but the reality is that mental health can have a critical impact on a company’s bottom line.

Think about your workforce. Do you have:

  • Employees who frequently call out sick?
  • Managers that consistently struggle to meet their productivity targets?
  • A high turnover rate?
  • Concerns about stress among your employees?

While none of these symptoms are cause for panic, they are red flags that could be indicators that members of your workforce are experiencing mental health conditions that are going untreated.

According to data supplied by the American Psychiatric Association, employees with unresolved depression experience a 35% reduction in productivity, contributing to a loss to the U.S. economy of $210.5 billion a year in absenteeism, reduced productivity, and medical costs.

One of the greatest barriers we as a society face is that shame and stigma continue to be persistent when it comes to mental health, leading to a reluctance to talk about and, in some cases, fear of getting treatment for mental health issues. It is important to understand that mental illness does not discriminate and affects individuals of every gender, culture, race, religion, and socioeconomic background. In fact, worldwide, depression is the leading cause of disability, with the World Health Organization estimating that 300 million people globally live with depression, with many also exhibiting symptoms of anxiety.

Depression can manifest in many ways, including:

  • Losing interest in all or most activities
  • Reduction or increase in appetite or sleep
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Thoughts of suicide

Given the symptoms of depression, it makes sense that when employees are depressed, they miss an average of 31.4 days per year and lose another 27.9 to unproductivity, and with the high prevalence of depression globally, your company undoubtedly employs individuals who live with depression and could benefit from your support.

A Mentally Healthy Workforce Is Good for Business

While the data about depression and productivity loss is dramatic, the good news is that mental illness—depression in particular—is treatable. With proper care, including therapy, skill building, and medication, 80% of employees treated for mental illness report improved levels of work effectiveness and satisfaction.

“Addressing employee mental health is cost-effective for the employer and beneficial for the employee,” said Philip G. Levendusky, PhD, ABPP, director of the Psychology Department at McLean Hospital and a member of the faculty at Harvard Medical School. “When employees receive effective treatment for mental illness, the result is lower total medical costs, increased productivity, lower absenteeism, and decreased disability costs.”

According to Levendusky, education and transparency are critical to helping employees understand mental illness and feel comfortable addressing issues as they arise.

Employees hard at work
“Mental wellness is a company-wide initiative that should be a commitment of everyone,” says Dr. Philip Levendusky

“I am not advocating for employers to attempt to diagnose an employee. What I am encouraging is greater education about the symptoms of common mental health disorders, tools—such as dialectical behavior therapy—that employees and employers can apply in their everyday lives, and access to resources when an employee needs professional assistance,” he said.

Levendusky points out that business owners and families are not immune to mental illness—particularly issues that can arise due to financial stress and the exhaustion that comes with the time commitments that are often placed on business leaders in the community.

“Similar to a parent who focuses on a child’s health—yet neglecting their own—becomes detrimental to the family, it is equally important that company leaders, while tending to the needs of their employees, don’t lose sight of their own mental health,” said Levendusky. “Mental wellness is a company-wide initiative that should be a commitment of everyone.”

Stress, like mental illness, is common in the workplace. Although stress is not a medical condition, without relief, it can contribute to the development of physical conditions and mental health concerns, including depression and anxiety.

According to a recent study, a quarter of non-executive employees say they feel stressed all or most of the time—and this figure rises to a startling 49% for supervisors.

“Stress is experienced when an individual feels the demands being made upon them are greater than their ability to cope. Some stress is healthy, but too much can be debilitating,” said Levendusky. “Irritability, insomnia, depressed mood, are all common symptoms of excessive stress and should not be ignored.”

Levendusky suggests that the more employers and employees have a dialogue about stress, as well as mental health, the more the subjects become a normal part of the workplace conversation.

How to Manage Stress in the Workplace

Make sure to regularly assess employee workload

If you find that a normally outgoing and affable employee begins to act sullen or uncharacteristically confrontational, or you notice changes in performance, such as staying late or making errors, sit down for a constructive conversation. The sooner you identify the issue, the sooner you can begin to address it.

Taking breaks reduces stress and improves productivity

Encourage employees to take regular breaks throughout the day. This could mean taking a walk, reading a book, or talking with a friend. It is important for employees to give their brains a moment to rest and reorganize. Contrary to many people’s first instincts when they are stressed, taking breaks makes you more efficient, more energetic, and better able to tackle the challenges in front of you.

Healthy diets and exercise are good for everyone

Encourage your employees to exercise regularly. Ironically, exercise is one of the first things to fall by the wayside, yet is one of the most important coping techniques in terms of reducing tension and increasing energy! No matter how stressed and frantic someone is feeling, a brisk 20-minute walk will likely help.

Maintaining a healthy diet is another key to reducing stress. When your mind is full of worries and pressures, many people find that they slip into “mindless eating.” Maintaining a balanced diet of foods that provide a more constant source of energy (instead of that sugar spike) can be a great first line of defense against the adverse effects of stress.

Encourage employees to talk with your employee assistance program or a mental health professional if they are having trouble reducing their stress or have concerns about other issues related to their mental health.

While business owners cannot prevent issues around mental health and stress in the workplace, by providing education and increasing awareness, they can build an accepting environment that supports and encourages mental and physical well-being.