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How to Create a Mental-Health-Friendly Workplace

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“Mental illness does not discriminate,” says Bob Carolla, director of media relations at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). “It can strike anyone at any time.”

President John Quincy Adams and author Iris Chang (“The Rape of Nanking” and “The Chinese in America”) battled depression. Media giant Ted Turner and broadcaster Jane Pauley have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

There are about 57.7 million adults experience a mental health disorder in a given year and one in 17 lives with a serious mental illness, according to NAMI. And the cost of untreated mental illness in lost productivity, accidents, and high absenteeism and turnover to corporate America is steep—at least $105 billion in lost productivity annually, reports  U.S.A. Today on research by Harvard University Medical School.

  • More than 200 million workdays are lost each year because of mental disorders (Center for Prevention and Health Services’ An Employer’s Guide to Behavior Health Services). Those with depression miss an average of 4.8 workdays, plus experience 11.5 days of reduced productivity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • Employees who have depression—the most common mental disorder in the workplace, affecting up to 6 million men and 12 million women in the United States annually—cost companies $44 billion per year in lost productivity (The Journal of the American Medical Association).
  • Nearly 20 million Americans suffer from depression, or about 10 percent of the population, according to National Institute for Mental Health.
  • Absence, disability and lost productivity related to mental disorders cost employers more than four times the cost of employee medical treatment (Partnership for Workplace Mental Health’s A Mentally Healthy Workforce—It’s Good for Business)
  • More than 90 percent of employees agree that their mental health and personal problems spill over into their professional lives and have a direct impact on their job performance. But 75 percent of employees who seek care for mental-health problems see substantial improvement in work performance after treatment (Mental Health America).

Moreover, “‘Parity’ with other illnesses generally cost businesses less than $1.35 per employee per month,” notes Carolla, who has lived with bipolar disorder for the past 20 years.

Which Racial Groups Are Most Affected?

While mental-health disorders impact everyone, some racial groups face more stigmatism than whites, explains Carolla. This can serve as a barrier to seeking treatment. Other underrepresented groups experience greater trauma and/or lack of access to quality care.

  • The number of diagnosed cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for both veterans and active-duty servicemembers jumped 757 percent from 2003 to 2009, increasing from 1,632 to 14,000 (The Pentagon).
  • American Indian/Alaska Natives have a higher rate of traumatic exposure, with a 22 percent rate of PTSD, versus 8 percent for the general U.S. population (U.S. Surgeon General)
  • One-third of all Americans with a mental-health problem get care, and the percentage of Blacks receiving care because of lower incomes and other factors is one-half that of whites. According to the U.S. Surgeon General, one study found nearly 60 percent of older Black adults were not receiving needed services. “African Americans are also less likely to receive accurate diagnoses,” adds Carolla.
  • Suicide among Black male tweens increased dramatically from 1980 to 1995. The rate of suicide among all children ages 10 to 14 increased 120 percent during that period, but the suicide rate for Black males in that same age group increased 233 percent (U.S. Surgeon General)
  • In a survey of students at more than 150 high schools nationwide, Latino youth were significantly more likely (10.7 percent) than white students (6.3 percent) to report a suicide attempt. Latinas were more than twice as likely (14.9 percent) as Latino males (7.2 percent) to have reported a suicide attempt (USSG)
  • Suicide is the third leading cause of death among 15- to 24-year-olds, and LGBTQ youth are up to four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers (The Trevor Project)


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  • According to a report by GLSEN, “Ongoing physical and verbal abuse isolate [LGBT] students from their peers, often leading to depression, low self-esteem and sometimes even suicide. One study showed that LGBT youth who experience harassment are 400 percent more likely than LGBT youth who do not to make serious suicide attempts.”

To educate the public about LGBT youth suicide prevention, GLSEN released a video featuring Sirdeaner Walker. Her 11-year-old son, who was being relentlessly bullied at school, committed suicide last year. Listen to her speak at the fifth annual GLSEN Respect Awards:

How Can Employers Help?

1. Communicate mental healthcare options: Employee-assistance programs (EAPs) can provide assessment and short-term counseling and make referrals for individuals at risk of mental disorders or facing trauma, such as divorce or the loss of a loved one. Unfortunately, too few employees take advantage of this benefit, so it’s important to “promote it and remind people of the support that’s available,” advises Carolla.

At Eli Lilly and Co., the company’s EAP is promoted on the corporate intranet and can “be used 24/7 even if someone feels stressed or has job burnout,” says Charlie McAtee, a communications consultant at Lilly. “Our employees or dependents can get up to three short-term counseling sessions at no cost.”

Employers that provide EAPs for mental health report reduced medical, disability and workers’-compensation claims as well as savings through improved performance, says Carolla. The return on investment in an EAP runs about $3 in savings for every $1 invested, reports Managed Health Network research.

2. Provide support: Daily stress can take a toll on an individual’s health, but support groups may help. “There’s been research that shows some people, not all, have better outcomes when facing depression when they have a support network of people they can lean on,” says McAtee. In March, Lilly re-launched Support Partners Program, an online resource (available in English and Spanish) for people with depression and those who care for them to help: recognize the signs/symptoms, find a doctor, create a support-partner relationship and keep track of progress.

Corporate-sponsored resource groups also offer both support and help to educate all employees about mental health. At Bank of America, employees started a military-support affinity group; at PricewaterhouseCoopers, a special-needs caregivers networking circle is available.  

3. Build awareness: The stigma associated with “emotional instability” prevents many people from seeking support or treatment. ButERG leaders can start a dialogue by collaborating with mental-health organizations such as NAMI and holding awareness events that dispel myths and allow speakers to share inspirational stories. “Use opportunities like Mental Health Awareness Month in May and Mental Illness Awareness week in October to encourage workers to take care of themselves and each other,” says Carolla.

4. Train managers: In addition to making sure supervisors know about mental-healthcare options, mental-health compliance issues must be integrated into diversity-training programs. Otherwise, companies risk liability. In Lizotte v. Dacotah Bank, et al. (D. N.D., 2010), an assistant vice president was medically cleared to return to work after recovering from a mental disorder. But upon his return, he was let go and subsequently sued. The court found for the plaintiff, ruling that the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits employees from being discharged “due to accumulated myths, fears and stereotypes.”

5. Make accommodations: These can include flexible or adjustable work hours, a paced workload, modified job responsibility and “frequent guidance and feedback about job performance,” suggests Carolla. IBM has created a remarkable flexible work environment that helps all employees and is especially beneficial to parents, people with eldercare issues and people with disabilities.

6. Recognize mental-health ambassadors: Volunteers who share their personal stories must be encouraged and commended. Eli Lilly started a Welcome Back Awards program in 1998 to recognize the achievements of people nationwide who are fighting against depression and the associated stigma. Each year, a panel of experts selects honorees in several categories who are then each awarded from $10,000 to $15,000 to share with a nonprofit of their choice.

“They’re the unsung heroes,” says McAtee. “It’s a small way to say ‘thank you’ to the people on the front lines making a difference.”

Corporate Awareness Building: A Case Study

Angela Oakes learned she had major depression 15 years ago and has since been diagnosed with borderline personality, bipolar and attention deficit hyperactivity disorders, likely resulting from the sexual trauma she suffered at age 6. After a divorce and losing custody of her two sons, Oakes battled several downwardly spiraling years before making a slow and remarkable recovery

Today, not only does the 42-year-old woman stick to a structured routine of exercise, sleep and a healthy diet, but Oakes has found her calling in the mental-health movement: serving as an ambassador and sharing her inspirational story with organizations throughout Charlotte, N.C.

In honor of National Mental Health Awareness month in May, Oakes, an administrative assistant at Wells Fargo & Co., collaborated with the bank’s diversity leaders to orchestrate two companywide mental-health presentations, including a film on suicide prevention.

After Oakes’ recent presentation, she opened the floor to questions and “people were still talking 30 minutes later,” she says. “It’s really hard to explain that darkness to somebody … but you can’t be afraid to reach out and talk about it.”

 

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3 Comments

  • Anonymous

    With the suicides in Chinese plants, recently, this article is even more poignant. Management needs to be aware of how significant the perceived organizational culture is to the employees.

  • Anonymous

    What and excellent article. I work in an extremely stressful government agency. I have recently observed 4 incidents involving employees from a particularly stressed out directorate. In each case they involved very dedicated professionals who, I believe, reached their limit. In the most recent case it resultied in the re-assignment of an outstanding person who has many years of experience. I think there should be a counselor on staff. What Eli Lily is doing is very commendalbe.

  • Anonymous

    As a student in the Sociology program at SUNY Brockport University, an aspiring Human Resources worker, and a mental health consumer, it is so good to see articles which address this very important subject. Not many people realize just how common it is to find that coworkers, neighbors and family members suffer from mental illness. It can be so easy to write that person off as a non-contributing member of society. However, when you put a face on mental illness-the face of managers, employees, writers, doctors, business professionals, etc-it dispels this commonly-held stereotype.In the interest of true diversity, these issues must be addressed through better community and workplace education, and programs which support healthy lifestyles. Bravo on your article!

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