HR Insights 5 min

Maintaining Mental Health in the Workplace

August 10, 2020

If you think you don’t need to be concerned about your workers’ mental health, think again. Mental health conditions are more common than you may think, affecting people from all walks of life. In addition to disrupting employees’ sense of well-being, mental health issues in the workplace can take a toll on your organization’s bottom line.

This article will help you understand the scope of the problem, explain why businesses should take the initiative to address it, and discuss what HR, leaders, and employees can do to help foster and maintain good mental health in the workplace.

Frequency and Cost of Mental Health Issues in the Workplace

Recent statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health show how widespread mental illness is in the workplace and everywhere else—and how often it’s ignored:

  • Nearly one in five adults in the United States live with some form of mental illness—46.6 million people in all.
  • Fewer than half of them received mental health services in the past year.
  • Nearly one in twenty U.S. adults—11.2 million of them—have a mental illness that is serious enough to interfere with work or other everyday activities.
  • Even in these serious cases, one in three people went untreated during the past year.

The high cost of poor mental health in the workplace for employees, employers, and the economy is also startling:

  • Serious mental illness costs as much as 193 billion dollars in lost earnings per year.
  • Depression alone leads to an estimated 400 million lost work days annually.
  • Depression and anxiety cost the global economy an estimated one trillion dollars in lost productivity every year.

Also, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) reports that over the past five years, the direct costs of treating mental health conditions in the U.S. went up 10 percent annually, compared with a five percent annual increase for other medical costs. Treating depression alone costs one hundred and ten billion dollars per year—and employers pay half.

These figures not only identify an enormous problem, they point to an important opportunity: investing in mental health initiatives in the workplace can help employees in need while improving profitability.

Common Mental Health Issues in the Workplace

A negative or stressful work environment can worsen mental health in the workplace, which in turn affects job performance. For example, workers who constantly feel pressured by a heavy workload or worry about losing their job may develop depression—the most prevalent mental illness in the workforce. Of course, stress outside of work can also affect a person’s mental health, which may then affect their work.

In addition to depression, other common mental health conditions at work include:

  • Anxiety disorders such as phobias, panic attacks, or post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Substance use disorder (addiction to drugs or alcohol)

These are not the only conditions affecting mental health in the workplace, but because their symptoms are sometimes disruptive, they are among the most likely to affect job performance, collaboration, camaraderie, and other soft skills needed for employees to work well and work well together.

Mental health issues in the workplace often go undiagnosed and untreated. The persistent and widespread stigma associated with having a psychiatric disorder leaves 68 percent of workers fearing they will lose their job if they disclose a mental illness. Many also worry that disclosure will cause coworkers to belittle or exclude them. They suffer in silence, their job performance declines, and their contribution to their team diminishes.

The High Cost of Doing Nothing About Mental Health in the Workplace

A great deal of research confirms that decreased productivity is the number one business expense resulting from untreated employee mental illness. For example, Mind Share Partners finds 61 percent of workers with mental health issues say their productivity is affected by their mental health; 37 percent say their work environment contributes to their symptoms.

In addition to diminished productivity, other potential business losses from mental health issues in the workplace include:

  • Increased absenteeism (taking sick days)
  • Increased likelihood of workplace accidents
  • Increased disability costs
  • Increased turnover
  • Decreased employee engagement
Learn why employee engagement is essential for business success.

Why Should Employers Support Mental Health Initiatives in the Workplace?

Even though many mental illnesses don’t originate in the workplace, there are good reasons to address them there. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) names several reasons why the workplace is well suited to creating a culture of good mental health:

  • Two out of three U.S. adults work, so you can reach most people through their jobs.
  • Communication structures are already in place.
  • Social support networks are available.
  • Workplace wellness programs can identify those at risk and connect them to treatment.
  • Employers can offer incentives to reinforce healthy behaviors.
  • Employers can use data to track progress and measure the effects.

Besides being the right thing to do for your employees, investing in better mental health in the workplace is good business. The World Health Organization estimates that every dollar invested in treatment and support for mental health disorders sees a return of four dollars in improved health and productivity.

Recommended Mental Health Initiatives in the Workplace

There are many steps HR and leaders can take to improve and maintain mental health in your organization. Some cost little or nothing. Here are recommendations from the CDC and others:

  • Make mental health self-assessment tools available to all employees.
  • Establish or enhance an employee assistance program (EAP) to provide free short-term counseling for mental health issues and other personal problems.
  • Offer health insurance that covers depression medications and mental health counseling with little or no out-of-pocket expenses.
  • Provide free or subsidized lifestyle coaching or counseling programs.
  • Distribute brochures, fliers, and videos to all employees about the signs and symptoms of poor mental health and opportunities for treatment.
  • Host seminars or workshops that address depression and stress management techniques.
  • Provide quiet spaces in the workplace for relaxation activities.
  • Train managers to recognize possible signs of stress and depression in team members and encourage those members to seek professional help.

If all of this is new to your organization, don’t become overwhelmed by trying to do everything at once. Pick one or two initiatives to start with, and add more as your time and resources allow.

How to Support a Coworker’s Mental Health in the Workplace

Launching sound mental health initiatives in the workplace can do a lot to promote good mental health company wide, but what can you do to help an individual coworker who is experiencing a mental illness? The Canadian Mental Health Association offers these tips:

  • Let them decide what and how much they tell you about their condition.
How to help your employees feel valued at work
  • Offer to listen without judging them.
  • Ask how you can help—and respect your coworker’s wishes.
  • Reassure them that they are still a valued part of the team.
  • Continue to include them in the workplace’s usual activities.
  • Depending on your relationship, keep in touch with a coworker who takes time off.
  • When a coworker returns to work after time off due to mental illness, make them feel welcome and appreciated. Saying nothing because you’re worried about saying the wrong thing could make your coworker feel worse.

Benefits of Greater Attention to Mental Health in the Workplace

Investing in mental health in the workplace can have sizable and measurable business benefits, including:

  • Increased productivity and efficiency
  • Reduced medical costs
  • Lower absenteeism
  • Decreased disability costs

But the most meaningful benefits can’t be measured in dollars. As you take steps to make mental health in your workplace a greater priority, look around at the individuals who are being helped by these initiatives. See how their lives are being changed for the better as they rediscover and reclaim their ability to enjoy their life and their work.

More than 80 percent of employees treated for mental illness say it improved their success and satisfaction. That’s a success story you can feel good about, too.

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Kent Peterson

Kent Peterson is a writer at BambooHR. He has also created award-winning work in radio and television.