Every employer wants a healthy and happy workforce. Robust levels of productivity, after all, contribute mightily to the bottom line. Recent times, however, have the seen the rise of a threat to efficient operations: a growing incidence of employee mental health issues. “Nearly one in five adults is battling a mental health condition today,” says Lynn Merritt, senior vice president for the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association. “And only about half are receiving adequate treatment.”
In the fall of 2022 the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, a panel of medical experts appointed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, recommended that all adult patients under the age of 65 be screened for anxiety during their physical exams. Anxiety is described as excessive fear or worry that interferes with an individual’s normal daily activities. “The pandemic has taken a tremendous toll on the mental health of youth and adults,” says Lori Pbert, a task force member. “We know it has heightened the trend toward more anxiety and depressive disorders that we’ve been seeing over the past decade or so.”
The workplace is being hit especially hard. Some 76 percent of full-time employees reported experiencing at least one mental health symptom in the past year, according to a survey from Mind Share Partners, a workplace wellness consulting firm. Moreover, more than half the Gen Zers, who make up a growing percentage of the nation’s workforce, reported symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Unresolved mental health issues can lead to burnout, anxiety, and depression—common causes of absenteeism and poor performance. Employers also incur direct costs in the form of spikes in disability claims and health insurance premiums. Finally, high stress levels can result in an increase in resignations at a time when employers can ill afford to lose personnel. “Fifty percent of survey respondents reported leaving their jobs due to mental health reasons,” says Michael Davis, principal of Mind Share Partners. Notably, the comparable figures were 68 percent for millennials and 80 percent for Gen Zers.
The after-effects of COVID-19 are the most immediate cause of the public’s increasing stress levels. But while the pandemic has disrupted lives and created anxiety about the future, psychologists say other factors are also in play. “Shootings and other violence in the news, social justice issues, economic uncertainty, and a sense of political polarity have all made people keenly frightened,” says Bernie Dyme, president of Perspectives Ltd, a workplace wellness consulting firm. “They feel the world is not comfortable, safe, and secure.”
Moreover, these societal pressures are hitting employees as they struggle to handle the growing workloads and longer hours resulting from the business world’s continuing drive for greater productivity. Such workplace-specific pressures are only made worse by the tight labor conditions that have been the legacy of the great resignation. When job positions go unfilled, already overworked personnel must handle additional responsibilities.
Businesses can take steps to enhance the mental health of their employees. The most important one is to create a healthy work environment. “To hold onto people, companies need to build good corporate cultures where people feel connected,” says Patrick J. Kennedy, co-founder and director of One Mind At Work, a global coalition of organizations committed to the development of a standard for workplace mental health. That means creating cultures of psychological safety where people feel respected by company that cares about them.
Opening up about mental health issues is critical. Supervisors need to eliminate any of their own lingering resistance to discussing the topic, and workers need to feel free to communicate when something is amiss. “People have always been very reticent to say they have hidden disabilities because they are afraid of the reaction at work, of putting their job in jeopardy if they ask for accommodations,” says Maureen Hotchner, a workplace wellness consultant. “We need to erase the stigma of speaking about mental health and provide a way for people to get help.”
This is one area where Gen Zers are leading the way: Psychologists say people in their 20s are more comfortable talking about mental health issues than their older colleagues. Of course, not everyone will speak up when something is wrong. That’s why employers must know how to spot employee behavior that might signify problems. Maybe Andrew has started to show up late for work or has been calling in sick more often. Or Lisa has been going through the motions of her assigned duties without any real engagement. Or Mark has become argumentative with co-workers.
The ability to spot signs of trouble pre-supposes a knowledge of the employee, and here is where supervisors and managers can be proactive. “One of the things that employers can do is build relationships with their people,” says Davis. “It’s really hard to have a conversation with someone about their behavior when you haven’t checked in with them on a regular basis.”
Spotting changes in employee behavior is one thing. Responding appropriately is another. Rather than mentioning stress or mental health when approaching the individual, psychologists advise supervisors to only discuss observed behaviors. “Erratic or different behavior might be related to a mental health issue, or it might not,” says Davis. “Maybe the person has just not been getting enough sleep because a family member is sick, or they were up late playing video games or watching TV.” Help the employee open up by asking what can be done to provide the resources required to improve performance. Would some adaptations help the person be at their best?
Given the human and business cost of workplace stress, it’s little wonder a growing number of businesses are reaching out for help. Consider the experience of the Center for Workplace Mental Health, a division of the American Psychiatric Association that maintains a website for employers seeking assistance. “Over the last five years the volume of requests that we’ve received has grown fourfold,” says Director Darcy Gruttadaro. Visits to the organization’s website doubled during the pandemic.
Insurance companies can also provide assistance, and more employers are helping workers get the services they need by ensuring the company insurance program covers the requisite care. “Part of the challenge is that the healthcare system has never been equitable in terms of providing services for, or paying claims of, mental or behavioral healthcare,” says Dyme. “Certainly not in the same way as they have the physical or medical side of things.”
While signing up for an appropriate plan is important, the fact remains that ensuring adequate care can still be elusive. “You may have robust mental health coverage, but if you don’t have enough therapists and psychiatrists in the health network it amounts to a plan without a promise of care,” says Gruttadaro. “Furthermore, many psychiatrists and therapists do not accept insurance because they have experienced administrative burdens and low reimbursement rates in health plan networks.”
Another problem is a lack of sufficient personnel. “Even if patients are lucky enough to find a practitioner in their network who takes new patients, they often must wait three to six months for an appointment,” says Gruttadaro. Blue Cross Blue Shield has estimated that 77 percent of U.S. counties are underserved by therapists. Scarce resources are an especially common problem in rural communities.
Here’s where technology has come to the rescue, at least to some extent. The work-from-home trend sparked by the pandemic has opened the door to telemedicine, expanding the pool of potential medical personnel to include practitioners far from a patient’s place of residence. “Being able to connect to a psychiatrist or therapist through a computer has been a real plus,” says Gruttadaro.
Remote treatment can also help resolve the special challenges experienced by the growing number of remote workers. There is evidence that isolation from colleagues can lead to mental health issues. “We typically get in the 16,000 range in terms of requests for our employer guides,” says Gruttadaro of the Center for Workplace Mental Health. “But our title about working remotely on mental health has received more than 300,000.”
Traditionally, businesses have put the burden on individual employees to deal with the burnout and stress that can lead to mental health issues. “Employers have always expected people to show up at the workplace and leave their problems at the door,” says Hotchner. “Today we know a lot more about human behavior, and we know that’s often not possible. People will put on a social face and avoid asking for any accommodations that might jeopardize their jobs. But because they have a hidden disability they are not able to give 100 percent.”
Times are changing, and today’s workers expect their employers to join in the mental health effort by providing a supportive workplace. That means taking steps such as adjusting workloads, encouraging autonomy, ensuring fairness, and enhancing self-worth through reward and recognition.
“We encourage organizations to look critically internally, and make the required changes to ensure that people are not getting burned out, because that’s the fastest move toward the exit when it comes to people’s work experiences,” says Gruttadaro. “It is really important that we build cultures in which people want to be part of the organization when they go to work in the morning, whether they’re walking through an office door or firing up their home computer.”
How Well Do You Address Mental Health Issues?
Does your workplace encourage good employee mental health? Find out by taking this quiz. Score 10 points for each “yes” answer to these questions. Then total your score and check your rating at the bottom of the chart.
Has your business taken the following steps?
- Created a work environment that encourages employees to communicate openly about stressors and mental health issues?
- Ensured that supervisors build healthy relationships with workers through regular check-ins?
- Developed appropriate procedures for approaching employees who exhibit behavioral problems?
- Encouraged autonomy, fairness, and enhanced employee self-worth with rewards and recognition?
- Given special attention to the psychological well-being of remote workers?
- Informed employees about available mental health resources, including clear instructions on where to go for help?
- Modified policies and procedures around paid time off, flexible hours, and mental health days?
- Reframed performance reviews as opportunities for feedback and learning?
- Conducted pulse surveys to better understand ongoing stressors affecting employees?
- Ensured the company health insurance program covers mental and psychological issues, and looked into telemedicine as a way to assist employees who need counseling?
What’s your score? 80 or more: Congratulations. You have gone a long way toward ensuring good mental health for your employees. Between 60 and 80: It’s time to fine tune your policies. Below 60: Your business is at risk. Take action on the suggestions in the accompanying story.
Workplace Mental Health Resources
Employers will find additional information about effective mental health programs at the following organizations:
- Center for Workplace Mental Health (workplacementalhealth.org) – Maintains an array of resources for employers, including a popular series of guides on mental health issues.
- Mind Share Partners (mindsharepartners.org) – Publishes the 2021 Mental Health at Work report with insights into causes of, and solutions for, burnout, anxiety, and depression.
- Perspectives Ltd. (perspectivesltd.com) – Offers an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and provides mental health resource guides and case studies for managers and employees.
Working With EAPs
Good physical and mental health go hand-in-hand. And treating them in tandem can go a long way toward ensuring productive employees. “When physical and mental health care are not integrated, diagnoses are often missed and conditions go untreated,” says Lynn Merritt, senior vice president for the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association. The result can be illnesses that impact employee performance and the business’ bottom line.
Too often, though, the mental health side of the partnership ends up getting neglected. The problem is largely one of tradition, as many insurance policies address only physical illness. Businesses can solve the issue in two ways. The first is by selecting carriers that treat mental health conditions. The second is by signing up with an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) which provides round-the-clock counseling through in-person consultations as well as remote access channels such as text, chat, video conference, or telephone.
“Sometimes all people need to do is talk with somebody at the beginning of the issues they’re struggling with, so their conditions don’t get worse,” says Bernie Dyme, president of Perspectives Ltd, an EAP consulting firm. “EAPs can give employees the help they need, and that can mean they will stick around, which helps retention.”
While EAPS are often baked into disability carrier insurance, not all such organizations are alike. Psychologists advise shopping around for one that is committed to quality consultations. “The very structure of most EAPs is based upon a pricing model where the contractor makes more when fewer people use it,” sayd Patrick J. Kennedy, co-founder and director of One Mind At Work, a global coalition of organizations committed to the development of a standard for workplace mental health. “Employers need to obtain EAPs that are not disincentivized to get more people to know about them and make use of them.”
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