Mental health at work: The employer side
In the last month, approximately one in five of your coworkers suffered symptoms of a mental illness. In the last year, one in four met criteria for a mental disorder. Over a lifetime, about 50% of US adults will meet criteria for a mental illness. It's almost 100% certain that you, or someone close to you, is suffering from symptoms of anxiety, depression, or other mental health concerns.
Yet when we walk into the doors of work each day, most of us don't talk about it. Even the most supportive employers offer little more than "Please talk with someone at EAP about that," or "We have great health insurance benefits for that." The conversation is almost never, "We're really great at accommodating colleagues with anxiety, depressive or other disorders so please let us know how we can make work better for you if you happen to be coping with those issues."
British Telecom (BT) in the UK has started to change that with a proactive three-tiered approach to mental health at work. It seems that elsewhere in the world, although nonprofits do exist to help raise awareness and advocate for change in the workplace around mental health, it's difficult to find companies who stand up and express proactive support for workers with mental illness. Most workers with mental illnesses WANT to be employed and are capable of being employed with minimal if any modifications to duties.
With at least 50% of their workforce affected personally and 100% through relationships, companies need to stand up and provide more ACTIVE support for workers with mental illness. The articles linked above detail the incredible costs of lost productivity beyond absenteeism, due to symptoms of mental illness in workers. I see the personal toll on highly qualified, capable professionals who make their way into my office. They are ashamed of their symptoms and often horrified at hearing they have a diagnosis, in large part because of how their employer might judge them if they found out. Companies can and should do something to be more supportive.
Here are a few ideas:
- Ensure that when you buy health insurance coverage for your employees, that the insurance carrier provides an adequate panel of mental health clinicians OR sufficiently open benefits so that employees can get services out of network.
- Emphasize that EAPs are often for situational stress or exacerbations of known mental illnesses and are not a replacement for proper evidence-based mental health counseling or medication-management services which should be covered under health insurance.
- Invite the conversation. No HR cannot inquire of employees whether they have a mental illness but they can INVITE employees to request appropriate modifications by making sure employees know that if they do have a mental illness, they may be eligible for accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act. It's also fair to say, "even if you don't qualify under ADA, we always do our best to accommodate health needs of our workers, including mental health needs."
What does your employer to do support mental health of its employees? Perhaps I've missed something in trying to find more proactive programs in the US.