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The Case for Supporting Mental Health in the Workplace

By: | May 2, 2019 • 5 min read
Steve Boese is HRE's Inside HR Tech columnist and is a co-chair of HRE’s HR Technology Conference®. Boese will be speaking at the HR Technology Conference in Las Vegas, Oct. 1 through 4. He also writes an HR blog and hosts the HR Happy Hour Show, a radio program and podcast. He can be emailed at [email protected]

Recently, I attended HRE’s Health & Benefits Leadership Conference in Las Vegas, participating as a speaker. The event provided a fantastic opportunity to hear benefits experts discuss the current issues and trends in employee benefits, learn more about the latest technology solutions supporting HR and benefits organizations, and to be challenged and inspired by the many superb speakers. One of the highlights of HBLC each year is the “Ideas and Innovators” session, in which about 10 speakers present in fast-paced, five-minute sessions.

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This year, I was invited to be one of the Ideas and Innovators presenters and was fortunate that the HBLC team allowed me to present on a topic that is a little outside my normal technology sweet spot. My talk was on the mental-health crisis in the workplace, and I was so interested in the topic and encouraged by the response at HBLC that I want to use this month’s column to share some of what I learned while researching for the talk.

With that, here are a few important things I learned about mental health in the workplace, along with my recommendations for how HR leaders can approach these challenges in their organizations.

1. Stress Comes from Many Sources

Personal and family issues, financial worries, physical-health problems and even the current and often acrimonious social and political environment are all sources of stress. Anyone experiencing increased stress from even one of these causes feels the strain and pressure; facing more than one of these at a time is enormously challenging. And these are just the “non-work” sources of stress.

Work-related stress is also a significant challenge for employees. Stress can weigh on anyone, leaving them discouraged and possibly causing them to burn out. Exhaustion and negative attitudes can increase the risk for depression, according to the American Psychiatric Association, and stress can also cause physical and emotional damage. Constantly worrying about work can lead to erratic eating habits and cut into exercise routines, leading to weight problems, and higher blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

Employers can and should play a more significant role in helping to find ways to reduce the work-related stress of their employees.

2. The Size of the Mental-Health Problem is Enormous

There are plenty of data about the size and scope of the mental-health problem in the U.S., and I have to admit I was almost shocked about some of the numbers. I always thought these problems were kind of unusual—outliers compared to the more commonly discussed physical-health challenges like cancer or heart disease. Just how common are mental-health conditions? According to the Centers for Disease Control, mental illnesses are among the most common health conditions in the U.S., with some studies showing that more than 50% of people will be diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder at some point in their lifetime.

In any given year, about one in five Americans will experience mental illness. To give that statistic some context, only about one in 10 people is left-handed. Left-handed people don’t seem all that rare in this world, so to think that mental illness occurs about twice as often as left-handedness is amazing. Finally, about one in five children, either currently or at some point during their life, has had a seriously debilitating mental illness, making the employee mental-health challenge one that is not limited to just employees, but often family members, too.

3. What Employers Can Do to Respond

Employers are certainly beginning to respond to the mental-health challenges of their workforces. Some simply have to as a business imperative, as conditions like depression and anxiety have a significant economic impact; the estimated cost to the global economy of mental-health illness is about $1 trillion per year in lost productivity—mostly due to employee absences and lack of focus while at work. Thus, the amount of money organizations are spending on the mental health of their employees has been rising rapidly—with annual costs increasing twice as fast as for all other medical expenses in recent years, according to Aetna Behavioral Health. Simply stated, people with mental-health conditions like depression, bipolar disorder or substance abuse cost employers more money.

Data from the Workplace Mental Health show that the average 1,000-employee organization that pays industry average salaries will experience an annual cost of $1.5 million in lost productivity due to employee depression. Even seemingly less serious illnesses like anxiety have an employer cost as well. Employees with anxiety make six times as many emergency-room visits as the overall population and submit two to four times as many medical claims, according to benefits-consulting firm Willis Towers Watson.

4. Final Recommendations

In my research, I did find several good ideas that can help HR and benefits leaders begin to address the mental-health challenges in their workforces. First, employers need to be able to identify who needs help. Some companies are deploying chatbot services that employees can text when they’re feeling depressed, anxious or stressed; these kinds of tools allow employees to open up about their problems in a way that feels less intimidating and scary.

Another challenge facing HR and benefits leaders is actually finding people help when they need it. Sometimes, it can take weeks to schedule an appointment. Telehealth, or virtual visits, are emerging as one possible solution to give employees better and faster access to services.

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Finally, since many of the causes of employee stress stem from the workplace itself, HR and benefits leaders have to address the drivers of stressful or even toxic workplaces. Long hours, excessive workloads, constant connectivity and expectations of around-the-clock availability are just a few of the circumstances that employers can monitor and proactively control in order to begin to create healthier workplaces. Employers have to understand the important role that work plays in an employee’s overall identity and take steps to contribute positively to their wellbeing.

 

Mental health is a much larger problem in society—and certainly also in the workplace—than I ever imagined. And while I don’t think that most HR and benefits leaders are/were as unaware of the problem as I was, I also think the breadth and scope of the challenge is probably not as well known and understood, even in HR organizations. As an important first step, we must develop a deeper awareness and understanding of the issue before we can take action.

I was inspired by so many of the speakers at the HBLC Ideas and Innovators session, and I hope I was also able to inspire someone to think about the mental health of their employees—more seriously and with more intention.

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