Acknowledging Mental Health in the Workplace
Just like physical health, every person has mental health. We have all heard the statistic: Nearly 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. — or 44.7 million people — reported having a mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder in 2016, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And this only represents those with a diagnosis — the prevalence of mental health challenges is much higher. For example, 71 percent of adults reported a symptom associated with stress, including headaches or anxiety.
The effects of mental health go far beyond your employees’ mood at work. People with depression, for example, are at higher risk for other medical conditions, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, stroke, and Alzheimer’s disease.
From an organizational standpoint, depression also has an impact on productivity. Roughly 200 million workdays are lost annually due to depression, costing employers $17 billion to $44 billion (CDC). Among the workforce, depression is a major cause of disability, absenteeism, presenteeism, and productivity loss.
The evidence is clear: People struggle with their mental health — and it impacts every aspect of their lives.
But, if that’s the case, why aren’t more people talking about it?
Why It’s Difficult to Get Help
As a culture, we celebrate — and even reward — people for taking care of their physical health. Think about your company’s employee benefits. Your company, like many others, might offer financial incentives to employees who complete their annual physical or wellness screening.
It’s also socially acceptable to seek medical treatment for a physical ailment. What do you do when you get really sick, break a bone or notice something out of the ordinary? You get medical attention. No one questions it. We’re also typically open to talking about physical ailments. If you fractured your foot, you’d probably be fine with sharing that information with anyone from the Starbucks barista to a work acquaintance in a crowded elevator.
Interestingly enough, the same is not true for our mental health. In fact, estimates suggest that only half of people with mental illnesses receive treatment, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Some of the barriers that prevent people from getting the help they need include:
1. Financial cost of treatment (therapy or medications) — Nearly half of the population (42 percent) saw cost and poor insurance coverage as the top barriers for accessing mental health treatment, according to America’s Mental Health 2018, a comprehensive study of access to mental health care conducted by Cohen Veterans Network and the National Council for Behavioral Health.
2. Fear of being judged by others — The stigmas that surround mental health often prevent people from speaking up, too. Some of the misconceptions people might have about those with any mental illness is that they’re unstable, violent or a threat. As a result, people who are struggling with their mental health often do so in silence, thinking that they just need to “toughen up” or that it will pass. But then it doesn’t.
3. Discrimination in the workplace — Some employees might be concerned that talking about their mental health would jeopardize their jobs, even though the Americans with Disabilities Act protects against discrimination or harassment at work due to a mental health condition. Discrimination includes firing people, passing them up for a promotion or forcing them to take leave simply because of their mental illness. Concern about it affecting their jobs was another reason people cited for not getting mental health treatment or counseling, even though they knew they needed it (2008-2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health).
Nearly half of the population (42 percent) saw cost and poor insurance coverage as the top barriers for accessing mental health treatment. (“America’s Mental Health 2018” study)
There are also other factors that influence someone’s willingness to talk about their mental health condition or seek help, including their age demographic. The likelihood that someone will be open to talking about a mental illness or seeking help for it varies greatly by generation.
Gen Z is more likely than other generations to report that their mental health is fair to poor, according to the American Psychological Association’s latest Stress in AmericaTM survey. Gen Z (37 percent) and Millennials (35 percent) are both more likely to report that they’ve received treatment or therapy from a mental health professional, compared to just 22 percent of Baby Boomers and 15 percent of older adults.
Social media may have played a role in this shift toward transparency about mental health, as Gen Z was raised in a culture that shares so much of their private lives publicly.
The Implications of Environment on Our Mental Health
Our mental health is influenced by a variety of factors, including race and ethnicity, gender, age, income level, education level, sexual orientation, and geographic location, according to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.
The social conditions we live in can also impact our mental health risks and outcomes.
Some of those social conditions include:
• Social support
• Employment opportunities
• Work conditions
For employers, it’s important to recognize how a workplace’s social and physical conditions contribute to employee well-being. That’s the first step toward creating an environment and culture that promotes sustained physical and mental health.
What social and physical conditions in your workplace detract from employee mental and physical well-being? What promotes it?
Like most things in business, an important first step is getting executive buy-in.
A digital platform that helps people share social media content, Buffer, is perhaps one of the best examples of executive-level buy-in when it comes to mental health in the workplace.
Co-founder and CEO Joel Gascoigne has opened the door to talking about mental health in the workplace by Tweeting about how much therapy has helped him.
On Buffer’s company blog, Courtney Seiter, Director of People at Buffer, wrote about how Joel’s openness has helped to destigmatize the conversation surrounding mental health. She wrote that Buffer has helped normalize tears for her — and she’s so grateful for it. By allowing people to openly talk about their mental health, Buffer’s employees are able to bring their whole selves to work — without having to hide how they’re feeling.
Sometimes, talking about the darkness can help us to feel lighter, like a weight has been lifted off of our chests, allowing us to breathe again. And chances are, others can relate and even feel empowered by your humanity and openness.
Recognizing When ‘Weather Becomes Climate’
There’s a ground-breaking article entitled, “Understanding Our Own Minds,” by Jeffrey Kluger in Time magazine’s December 2019 edition. In it, Kluger talks about how there is a natural cycle in life between good and bad days. The bad days are characterized by darkness and rain, but they’re offset by good days — filled with internal sunshine. These ups and downs are normal — until they aren’t. Unfortunately, some people get stuck in a permanent down cycle.
We often do not recognize the signs soon enough, whether it’s in ourselves or others. Why? Mental health is not as black-and-white as physical health. You have a broken bone, you get an X-ray, and the results are clear. It can be difficult to recognize the difference between an employee who is going through a difficult season in life versus an employee who might be facing major depression, for example.
Fortunately, that’s where mental health professionals come in. It’s not up to employers to diagnose conditions. But it is an organizational responsibility to recognize when employees are struggling and offer ways to help.
There are even financial motivators for employers to do so.
According to the CDC, mental health and stress can impact your employees’:
• Job performance and productivity
• Engagement at work
• Communication with others
• Physical capability and everyday functioning
One in five U.S. adults may have a mental illness, but five in five people have mental health. It’s time to set the stigmas aside and start talking about it.